Club By Club Premier League Preview: The Contenders

Who are the favourites to win the Premier League this season? Can Manchester City win consecutive titles? Will Chelsea deliver? What will Van Gaal bring to Manchester United? Today Michael Cox begins our Premier League club by club previews taking a close look at the top 7 contenders for 2014/2015.

Stamford Bridge

Chelsea

“I know my teams get results”, Jose Mourinho once said. “Usually, in the second season.” His career so far fully justifies this claim, as Mourinho’s sides always achieve something significant in his sophomore campaign.

At Porto, Mourinho won the European Cup in his second campaign, at Chelsea he retained the league, at Inter he won the European Cup again, and at Real Madrid he topped Barcelona to claim La Liga. Each time around, however, Mourinho had won something in the first campaign too, which acted as a stepping-stone.

Mourinho’s first campaign in his second spell at Chelsea felt like a transition year, something you don’t usually associate with Mourinho, a manager who demands high standards from the outset. There was, however, something of a retreat to a more typical Mourinho side, having initially attempted to play adventurous football. By the end of the campaign Chelsea were much more defensive, with the famous 2-0 victory at Anfield a classic bus-parking exercise, albeit with a second string side. Still, some of the counter-attacking was very good, and when combined with an aggressive midfield press, as against Arsenal in the 6-0 win, it was quite spectacular. That performance should be the template.

The basic structure of the Chelsea side year will remain, and Mourinho should again use both 4-2-3-1, and a more defensive-minded 4-3-3 system. The key, however, and another common theme of Mourinho’s second seasons, is significant investment in weak areas.

Chelsea have signed Diego Costa, who should ease their problem upfront, although the Brazilian-cum-Spaniard only enjoyed one truly prolific year at Atletico Madrid. Still, he’s a powerhouse of a centre-forward who specialises on the counter-attack, so he should fit in nicely.

Cesc Fabregas is a playmaker, but while he was too direct for Barcelona, it should work nicely at Chelsea under Mourinho’s style. His pairing with Nemanja Matic offers both power and precision, presumably with Oscar playing just ahead in the 4-2-3-1.

Filipe Luis, meanwhile, is a good, solid left-back and means Cesar Azpilicueta can switch to his preferred position on the right, which strengthens Chelsea on both flanks. John Terry and Gary Cahill were the best centre-back pairing in the league last season, and Thibaut Courtois is close to being the world’s best already.

The make-or-break department, however, is in the attacking midfield section. Eden Hazard turned in some superb performances last season but still lacks consistency, while Oscar was clearly exhausted in the second half of the campaign, and one wonders whether he’ll be affected by Brazil’s exit at the World Cup, the tournament his entire career was based around. Andre Schurrle, however, could be the man to step up in the second season, and if Mourinho can get the German to rediscover his Leverkusen form, the results could be spectacular.

Last Word

The favourites for the Premier League title. A solid defence, greater options in midfield and attackers more likely to score goals, Chelsea should keep up Mourinho’s ‘second season’ promise.

Chelsea Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Premier League 2.90  34.5% Bet at Bwin
Top 2 EPL Finish 1.60  62.5% Bet at Ladbrokes
Champions League 12.00  8.3% Bet at Unibet
FA Cup 7.00  14.3% Bet at bet365
League Cup 7.50  13.3% Bet at Coral

 

Manchester City

The last time Manchester City won the Premier League title, they were guilty of standing still. In the Premier League, of course, if you stand still, you go backwards – and City were a long way from winning the title the following campaign.

That time, they signed five players – Jack Rodwell, Matija Nastasic, Maicon, Javi Garcia and Scott Sinclair – who bolstered the squad but didn’t actually improve the starting XI. Only Nastastic was anything like a success.

There’s a danger they’ve replicated that season. Bacary Sagna is a good signing but probably a mere understudy to Pablo Zabaleta, while Willy Caballero is second in line behind Joe Hart, too. Fernando is a fine footballer and offers a more defensive alternative in the centre of midfield, and Frank Lampard has great experience, but again they haven’t actually made City a better XI. Amongst the signings of Alexis Sanchez, Ander Herrera and Diego Costa, it seems a little underwhelming considering City’s usual spending sprees.

That said, City don’t need a transformation. The margin of their title victory was slender, but it felt like City were an excellent side in the latter two-thirds of the campaign, having got all their mistakes out of their system early on. They were defeated five times within the first 11 matches, as Manuel Pellegrini adjusted to Premier League football, but for the remainder of the campaign they only lost two games – both by narrow margins against their two title rivals.

The players are now familiar with Manuel Pellegrini’s system, and their attacking play should again be spectacular. Yaya Toure took most of the plaudits last season, and he certainly scored some fine goals, but their key player is David Silva, who remains widely admired yet wholly underrated too. The way he orchestrates play and provides dangerous through-balls to attackers makes him simply wonderful to watch, and his selflessness – or perhaps lack of a killer instinct – means he’s rarely the match-winner, but he’s invariably City’s best player.

Pellegrini has great options in midfield, with Silva and Toure joined by the likes of Samir Nasri, Jesus Navas, James Milner, Fernandinho, Fernando, Lampard and Javi Garcia, but there are concerns at either end. Upfront, City have injury worries – Alvaro Negredo is out for a couple of months, while Stevan Jovetic and Sergio Aguero are forever picking up knocks. That said, if Aguero can find full fitness throughout the campaign, City should win the league – that’s how good he is at 100%.

At the back, meanwhile, there are questions about Hart’s level of performance – more competition might do him good – while the centre-back pairing is never entirely error-free. Vincent Kompany’s performances deserve more scrutiny, despite the fact his centre-back partner is usually given the blame for any concessions.

Last Word

Other clubs are relying on new signings for improvement, whereas City’s will probably have to come from within – more assured defensive play, increased understanding of attacking structures to create chances, and the increased availability of Jovetic and Aguero. They’ll come close, but Chelsea might have eased ahead.

Manchester City Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Premier League 3.50  28.6% Bet at William Hill
Top 2 EPL Finish 1.50  66.7% Bet at Ladbrokes
Champions League 13.00  7.7% Bet at Paddy Power
FA Cup 7.00  14.3% Bet at Skybet
League Cup 7.00  14.3% Bet at bet365

 

Manchester United

In the Premier League, we’re not accustomed to the arrival of genuine managerial giants. Arsene Wenger arrived to little fanfare, Jose Mourinho had already won the European Cup but remained something of an unknown, while Rafael Benitez was a well-respected manager but not yet considered one of the true elite. Perhaps only Carlo Ancelotti was an outrageously successful club manager at the time of his arrival, and even then, only at one club.

Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal, however, is a serial winner. He’s a league champion in three different countries, with three different giants – Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich – and equally impressively, steered underdogs AZ to the Eredivise title in 2008/09, too. He won’t have any problems commanding respect at United, unlike his predecessor David Moyes.

Van Gaal is something of an all-rounder, a disciplinarian and a tactician, a motivator and a training ground manager. He brings the very concept of a ‘philosophy’ to Manchester United – it might seem a strange thing to say, but under Sir Alex Ferguson, United weren’t necessarily a team who played a certain way, more a team who played with a certain attitude. There were certain key characteristics of Ferguson’s sides, but not in the same way that Van Gaal will prescribe a high line, lots of cohesive pressing, probably a back three, and perhaps man-marking in midfield.

Van Gaal has always liked working with young players capable of adapting their style to suit his demands, and it’s no surprise Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs have all left the club. That’s an awful lot of experience to lose, and questions remain about the identity of United’s new captain. But it doesn’t really matter – Van Gaal will be the boss, and everyone will be expected to fall in line. He’ll appreciate the lack of seniority.

Tactically, the major change will be United playing much higher up the pitch. Ferdinand and Vidic’s declining pace made United sit far too deep, and with the likes of Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones playing every week, United will push forward and attempt to win the ball high up the pitch. Midfield pressing will be particularly obvious, with Ander Herrera the perfect man to set the tempo in this respect, while Rafael and Luke Shaw should be suited to being wing-backs, and can comfortably drop back into a four-man defence if needed.

Little work is needed upfront. Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are all top-class players, and Van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system is the ideal formation to get each playing in their best role.

Mata was arguably the Premier League’s best footballer when playing as a number 10 at Chelsea, and could be a good bet for Player of the Season.

Last Word

United’s players will take time to adjust to the system, but the gentle start to the campaign works nicely – United play all three newly-promoted sides in the first six weeks. They should be up to speed by the time they face the big boys. Still, it would take an extraordinary turnaround for United to win the league this season, and both City and Chelsea have more complete squads.

Manchester United Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Premier League 6.00  16.7% Bet at Titanbet
Top 2 EPL Finish 2.80  35.7% Bet at Ladbrokes
Top 4 EPL Finish 1.53  65.4% Bet at Bwin
FA Cup 8.00  12.5% Bet at Unibet
League Cup 8.50  11.8% Bet at Betway

 

Arsenal

Arsenal’s season previews often take the form of a copy-and-paste from the previous summer, but this time around, things are very different. There’s no mention of a trophy drought, no discontent at the lack of summer signings, and little speculation that Arsenal could finally drop out of the top four.

The supporters are considerably happier than twelve months ago, and that’s actually extremely important – the Emirates often seems like a nervous, fragile arena, with the level of confidence in the stands mirroring that of the players. A happy supporters base generally means a happy, motivated squad.

The signing of Alexis Sanchez seems to work perfectly. Arsenal suffered last season because they depended too much upon Olivier Giroud, and while the Frenchman certainly isn’t a bad player, he can appear rather one-dimensional. He’s tall, strong and comfortable with his back to goal, but he’s not particularly mobile. Sanchez is the polar opposite, and therefore Wenger should be capable of using these two tactical options cleverly – Sanchez can play both in accompaniment to, and instead of, Giroud. He’s likely to start wide-right until Theo Walcott returns from injury, but expect to see him playing through the middle, as Arsenal’s first-choice centre-forward, very frequently too.

If Arsenal are to win the title, however, they need improvements across the board. The defence was excellent for long spells last season, but then self-destructed against the big sides. Mikel Arteta must find another gear, Mesut Ozil must be more consistent, Santi Cazorla must return to his first season form, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain must contribute regularly rather than sporadically. None of these things are impossible, and as always with Arsenal, there’s the potential within the squad to compete.

Now, Arsenal have experience, and in particular, experience of winning things. The FA Cup victory is huge monkey of their backs, of course, but their big-money attacking signings in recent years – Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud, Ozil and Sanchez – have all won major trophies elsewhere. Once, during the era of Denilson and Alex Song, Arsenal’s players all seemed to be in the same boat – young, hungry, but viewing success as a bonus rather than a necessity. These days, they have players accustomed to winning trophies.

There’s no longer a glaring hole in the squad, although the spine could do with strengthening in terms of depth. Thomas Vermaelen’s probable departure would leave Calum Chambers as first reverse centre-back, while Wenger has never won a title without Patrick Vieira’s midfield presence – are Arteta and Mathieu Flamini capable of playing that role to a title-winning standard, or is another signing on the way?

Last Word

Arsenal are a better side than last year, and should push on. A title challenge should be on the cards, but other sides are better placed unless Wenger makes one final, big-name signing.

Arsenal Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Premier League 8.00  12.5% Bet at Coral
Top 4 EPL Finish 1.57  63.7% Bet at Bwin
Champions League 26.00  3.8% Bet at Stan James
FA Cup 10.00  10.0% Bet at bet365
League Cup 11.00  9.1% Bet at bet365

 

Liverpool

Regardless of Luis Suarez’s future, it would have been difficult for Liverpool to replicate their 2013/14 campaign. Suarez’s incredible individual goalscoring tally was probably a one-off, and there were defensive worries that were never solved, and eventually proved crucial.

Replacing Suarez is an impossible task, but Liverpool have done the right thing by recruiting a quantity of talented attackers, rather than seeking to replace him directly. In terms of goals, Liverpool already had the next-best man to replace him, as Daniel Sturridge finished second to Suarez in the Golden Boot race last season, with 21 goals. He was sometimes pushed out to the flank because of Suarez (although the reverse happened too) and he could thrive in a permanent centre-forward role. Suarez and Sturridge occasionally combined superbly, but it was often difficult for Rodgers to find a system which used both in their favoured position, without compromising the stability of the side overall.

Sturridge will lead the line, then, and Brendan Rodgers has recruited two exciting attacking midfielders to provide him, and chip in with goals. Adam Lallana is a multitalented, versatile playmaker, although it’s difficult to predict how he’ll adapt to playing for a big club, when his performances are in the spotlight every week. Often outstanding for Southampton last season, his displays against the biggest sides in the league were inconsistent, and he was flattered by his PFA Player of the Year nomination.

Tricky winger Lazar Markovic looks perfect for Rodgers’ system – a dangerous counter-attacker who is also efficient and tidy with his distribution – but his best performances for Benfica came as a supersub, and he might be predominantly an impact player this season. Raheem Sterling could be Liverpool’s most important player in that zone – he was occasionally unplayable last year, and he’s shown great tactical intelligence as well as an attacking spark, and has improved his end product. Rickie Lambert is the Plan B Liverpool didn’t have last year.

The defence has been strengthened with the arrival of Dejan Lovren, a fine defender capable of playing high up the pitch, but in truth Liverpool predominantly need better organisation at the back in order concede fewer goals. The full-back positions remain a concern, while goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is peculiar – he makes good saves but somehow feels unconvincing in his all-round game.

The midfield is the final piece of the jigsaw. Steven Gerrard will find it hard with the extra pressures of Champions League football and will need to be rotated, while newcomer Emre Can is a strange player, a bits-and-pieces midfielder that needs to be moulded into a reliable, consistent footballer. Rodgers has proved excellent in this respect with others, but it might take two seasons, rather than one, which summarises Liverpool overall.

Last Word

Liverpool need to take a step back in order to take two forward, and their starting XI is weaker than last season, as it would be a surprise if Lallana, Markovic and Can all adjusted immediately. But last season’s near-success was a huge surprise, and Rodgers’ plan is still on schedule.

Liverpool Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Premier League 13.00  7.7% Bet at Ladbrokes
Top 4 EPL Finish 2.10  47.6% Bet at Betway
Champions League 29.00  3.4% Bet at Ladbrokes
FA Cup 10.00  10.0% Bet at Coral
League Cup 10.00  10.0% Bet at BetVictor

 

Tottenham

Tottenham’s 2013/14 campaign didn’t really make sense. The consensus was that they spent badly on a bunch of misfiring flops, and were then chronically mismanaged in two completely different ways – Andre Villas-Boas didn’t understand people, Tim Sherwood didn’t understand tactics.

Disaster, right? But then, look at the league table, and you realise Spurs only finished ten points away from a Champions League place.

Mauricio Pochettino, then, has taken on a rather promising situation. Only a slight improvement, and Spurs will be breathing down the neck of Arsenal and perhaps Liverpool, although the obvious worry is that Manchester United will re-overtake them, especially without the pressures of European football.

Spurs’ squad isn’t significantly different from last season, and nor should it be. The idea that Spurs signed badly last summer isn’t really true – the signings generally didn’t work out, but basically because they were managed poorly, rather than because they were bad upon arrival.

Strangely, Spurs’ quick oscillation between old-school man-manager and young, foreign ‘laptop manager’ has actually worked quite nicely – those players were signed for Andre Villas-Boas’ style of football, and with Pochettino also demanding lots of pressing and a high defensive line, he might find himself able to bring the best out of Erik Lamela or Paulinho. Christian Eriksen will need to adapt his game and work harder, but could become one of the Premier League’s best players.

Pochettino will attempt to transfer his Southampton blueprint to Spurs, which means lots of pressing, and high possession statistics despite an unspectacular pass completion rate – they’ll give the ball away lots, but win it back quickly. 4-2-3-1 should be the order of the day, although this system has almost become the default in the modern game.

Spurs’ main concern is about the actual quality of their starting XI. They have a genuinely impressive 25-man squad, but as Sherwood pointed out in his final days, in some positions they have various players of roughly the same quality. In central midfield, for example, is there much between Sandro, Mousa Dembele, Etienne Capoue, Paulinho and rumoured new arrival Morgan Schneiderlin? It’s difficult to see a hierarchy there, and while the players omitted will be excellent back-ups, the players chosen don’t guarantee good performances.

Last Word

If Pochettino can get the best from Lamela, Eriksen, Andros Townsend, Roberto Soldado and/or Emmanuel Adebayor, Spurs have a genuinely good side. But in reality, a couple of those will perform well and a couple will underwhelm, and it might be the second season where Pochettino’s side push on for a title bid.

Tottenham Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Premier League 67.00  1.5% Bet at bet365
Top 4 EPL Finish 4.50  22.2% Bet at Ladbrokes
Europa League 19.00  5.3% Bet at bet365
FA Cup 15.00  6.7% Bet at Bwin
League Cup 15.00  6.7% Bet at bet365

 

Everton

Roberto Martinez’s transfer business this summer summarises how happy he was with his first campaign at Everton – of the three major arrivals, two are simply the permanent singings of Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry, who were both highly impressive in 2013/14. That’s an indication that Martinez will keep things the same – 4-2-3-1, a structured central midfield zone, attacking full-backs, a rotating band of attackers, and Ross Barkley connecting everything from his number 10 position.

The other significant signing is Mohamed Besic, who has already received rave reviews for his performances in friendly matches, although we know little about him other than the fact he did a good job as Bosnia’s holding midfielder in the World Cup. It seems strange that he was such a late inclusion into the Bosnia side if he possesses so much quality, although Martinez says he’s been tracking the midfielder for years. Still, with Barry and James McCarthy striking up a good partnership in that zone, he won’t be guaranteed a start from the outset.

Where will Everton’s improvement come from, then? Well, Martinez will hope various players have developed more since last season. Barkley was often fantastic last season, with his movement and positioning being the key to his impact upon matches, but he can become more efficient in the final third, and the criticism which greeted Roy Hodgson’s innocuous comments along the same lines was extremely strange.

John Stones, too, looks a fine footballer and could earn a permanent centre-back slot, while Lukaku should become more consistent with time, and perhaps Hallam Hope could be handed opportunities to impress.

Even slightly older players like Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas look rejuvenated under Martinez, and there’s also an argument that Everton will be more accustomed to the style of play after an extra year under the Spaniard’s leadership.

The Europa League might affect Everton’s league position, although should Martinez put great effort into competing in Europe, Everton are very much capable of winning the competition. It will be difficult for them to compete on two fronts, though.

Last Word

Everton should be roughly as good as last season, but with Spurs (three points behind last season) and Manchester United (eight points behind last season) likely to improve under new coaches, matching last season’s fifth-place finish will be difficult.

Everton Odds For 2014/2015

 Best OddsImplied ProbabilityBookmaker
Premier League 151.00  0.7% Bet at Betway
Top 4 EPL Finish 8.00  12.5% Bet at bet365
Europa League 26.00  3.8% Bet at Ladbrokes
FA Cup 17.00  5.9% Bet at Sportingbet
League Cup 17.00  5.9% Bet at bet365

 

 

Read part 2 of Michael's Premier League club previews - The Midtable.
Read part 3 of Michael's Premier League club previews - Relegation Candidates.

 

 

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And read more of his work at ZonalMarking.net