Like children on the night before Christmas, the sense of excitement is almost overwhelming. Almost, but not quite. But I digress. It’s time to continue our brief Premier League previews with Leicester City, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Newcastle United and Norwich City.
Leicester City: There are many different ways to finish a football season in the middle of the table. You can come haring out of the traps and slowly fall away from an artificially exalted height. You can spend thirty-eight matches being consistent in terms of your inconsistency, winning a couple and then losing a couple, too good to trouble the foot of the table, but not quite strong enough to spend much time at the top. Or you can be Leicester City. Last season, the Foxes’ place in the form table swung around like a broken barometer. After putting five goals past Manchester United in September, they went until the 28th of December before registering another win, and then, after a brief period of something approaching stability, embarked on another two month winless run before winning seven of their last nine matches of the season to secure a dizzying fourteenth place finish to the season.
Bearing all of this in mind, that the club’s summer should have had a degree of lunacy about it should probably come as little surprise. A trip to Thailand ended in lurid tabloid news headlines, and within a few weeks manager Nigel “Thousand Yard Stare” Pearson had left the club, although details of the exact reasoning behind this remained opaque. His replacement was Claudio Ranieri, whose services have been taken up by Valencia, Parma, Juventus, Roma, Internazionale, Monaco and Greece since he left Chelsea in 2004. Ranieri has two main tasks, should he wish to keep his team from a bout of Second Season Syndrome. Firstly, he has to keep the sense of togetherness that it was widely reported that Pearson built within his squad last season. In view of this, there seems to be an inherent risk in appointing someone who seems to be something approaching the diametric opposite of the previous incumbent. Secondly, he has to fill an Esteban Cambiasso-shaped whole at the heart of the team’s midfield. Cambiasso had a talismanic effect on the team last season, and replacing him is going to be an extremely tall order indeed. There are causes for optimism for Leicester supporters – Andrej Kramaric flourished under Pearson and has by all accounts looked perky in pre-season – but matching last season’s fourteenth-placed finish would be a significant achievement for the new manager.
Liverpool: It’s been a little over three years now, but still the jury remains out on Brendan Rodgers. On the one hand, the Liverpool manager is as tactically sophisticated as any in the Premier League, and the 2013/14 season might have seen his team carried, to a lesser or greater extent, by the troublesome talents of Luis Suarez, but he did come as close as any Liverpool manager has to winning the league title since the formation of the Premier League. On the other, though, when Liverpool have capitulated under Rodgers, they’ve occasionally done so hard, and it’s difficult to believe that there wasn’t something deliberately impish about the scheduler who sent the club to The Britannia Stadium, scene of a desolate 6-1 defeat on the last day of last season, on the first weekend of this. It wasn’t, we might dare to venture, the sort of send-off that Steven Gerrard might have hoped for.
This summer has been a mixed one for the club. The loss of Raheem Sterling to Manchester City is an undoubtedly significant one, as well as being something of a blow to the pride of a club accustomed to sitting at the very top of football’s transfer food chain, but the return of Daniel Sturridge from injury will come as a welcome relief, whilst the addition of Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino add options to Liverpool’s attack, if not necessarily guaranteed goals. Elsewhere, the familiar pattern of Liverpool seeking to find strength in numbers has reasserted itself again this summer, and one or two of their other signings have something of a look of being ballast about them. Still, though, the feeling of deflation and hangover from the end of last season should have cleared by the time they get underway again at the weekend, and the Europa League, domestic cups and another push for a place in the Champions League should enough to occupy the minds of most supporters. There doesn’t seem to have been enough improvement at Anfield over the summer to suggest a title challenge this time around, though.
Manchester City: If facile cliche is to be believed (and who’s to say it isn’t?), the easy thing to do is to get the top, but the harder thing to do is stay there. To an extent, last season had a hint of inevitability about it for Manchester City. For all the money in the world destinies come and destinies go, and success at the very top end of professional sport is very, very seldom perpetual. Still financially plumpened by Sheikh Mansour and now little bit freer to spend his money thanks to a relaxation of Financial Fair Play rules by UEFA at the tail end of last season, expectations at The Etihad Stadium have probably changed forever and, seldom ones to disappoint, the club kicked off its summer by spending £49m to bring Raheem Sterling across from Liverpool. It’s a lot of money, of course, but this is only partially true if you have access to Champions League money, the new Premier League television contract and owners as rich as as rich as Croesus. Should this financial gamble/investment (delete according to personal bias) come off, the money spent on this player will be deemed more than worth it, of course. If not… well, in football’s financially stratified brave new world, we’ll take a punt that Manchester City will probably be okay.
It’s easy, though, when writing these bits and pieces, to get caught up with new signings and overlook what a club already has on its playing staff. Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Fernandinho (as well as plenty of others) are all outstanding players, capable of switching a match in the blink of an eye, and there are others, such as Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany, who are due a return to form after a season that neither will wish to remember. It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion, however, that a repeat of Manuel Pellegrini’s second placed, trophy-less season last time around will not be tolerated by the club again. Breaking a duck and reaching the business end of the Champions League or – at the very least – giving Chelsea (or Arsenal, or whoever) a run for their money at the top of the Premier League might be considered progress, but when the stakes are so financially high, anything short of this will likely end with Manchester City in the market for a new manager come the end of the season.
Manchester United: It says quite a lot for how – by their own lofty standards, of course – dismal Manchester United’s single, solitary season under David Moyes was that last year’s fourth placed finish in the Premier League might be considered to have been significant progress for a club that had given the impression of being in mourning after the retirement of Alex Ferguson in 2013. The Champions League returns to Old Trafford this season, albeit in the initial form of a qualifying match, but, while we may have assumed that such news might have brought a little of that familiar swagger back to the club that had been dominating English football over the previous two decades, there are still signs of twitchiness at a club unaccustomed to the relative paucity of the last two seasons. The arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger may have put a spring in the step of some, but comments from Pep Guardiola stating that the midfielder has not been fit cast doubts over his signing. Elsewhere, Morgan Schneiderlin and Matteo Darmian have been solid if unspectacular signings.
The most curious story of the summer for Manchester United has surrounded the future of goalkeeper David de Gea. De Gea is maturing into one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but the pull of Real Madrid has been a strong one and it would still not necessarily be surprising to see him leave. With Victor Valdes having fallen out with Louis Van Gaal, such a scenario might have been difficult for the club, but the possible pain of it all might have been assuaged somewhat by the arrival of the highly experienced Sergio Romero from Sampdoria. The arrival of the Argentinian national goalkeeper at least grants Van Gaal a little more flexibility in this particular position with the end of this transfer window still four weeks away. Still, though, Manchester United look like a team in transition, still slightly unsure of their post-Ferguson identity. Stumbles from the others at the top of the table might allow them a glimpse of a championship race, but, for now, another season of Champions League qualification would probably be enough to keep the wolves from the door.
Newcastle United: It was a close shave, closer than most would have expected and anybody associated with the club would have wanted. The story of how Newcastle United went into the last day of last season still uncertain of hanging onto their place in the Premier League is one that could fill a book and the good news for supporters of the club is that actual, solid decisions have been made in order to minimise the possibility of it happening again. The bad news, however, is that levels of disillusionment at the way in which the club is being run now seems so embedded within its support that is has come to resemble something that looks from a distance like a form of depression. With one hand, the club spends not-inconsiderable amounts of money on new players. With the other, it signs a “preferred media deal” arrangement with a newspaper group that seems short-sighted and only lays it open to further criticism. Sometimes, with Newcastle United, it can feel as if grabbing defeat from the claws of victory and grabbing victory from the claws of defeat are something approaching one and the same thing.
For any club that has had such a narrow escape as this one had last season, though, there is always the consolation that things can’t surely be as bad the next time around. It seems as though this will likely be the case at St James Park this season. Newcastle United are unlikely to fall into the sort of torpor that they were blighted by under John Carver last season, Steve McClaren is a solid coach who should be able to instill a little discipline into his players, and Georgino Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba all look like promising new acquisitions, although each carries an air of the unproved about them. It’s unlikely that Newcastle United supporters will have to endure the close shave that they did last season again this time around but – ironically, considering everything – in some respects things are seldom black and white in the world of this particular football club.
Norwich City: There’s likely to be something of a dogfight at the bottom of the Premier League this season, and tradition dictates that the winners of the previous season’s Championship play-offs will be amongst those gasping for air. When Norwich City fell from the Premier League two years ago, it was with the sound of a slowly deflating whoopee cushion rather than any particular fanfare, and much of the blame for this, it was felt, rested on the shoulders of Chris Hughton, whose cautious/negative (again, delete as appropriate) playing style left his team looking a little too timid to stand much of a chance of staying up last time around. Alex Neil, however, is a different kettle of fish and it’s difficult to believe that the same mistakes will be made again this time around. The core of the team has experience at this level, so it’s impossible to write Norwich off as a lost cause before a ball has even been kicked at the start of the new season.
New signings Andre Wisdom, Youssouf Mulumbu and Graham Dorrans all look like they are capable of holding their own at this level, goalkeeper John Ruddy has been been sought after by bigger clubs before, and Wes Hoolahan and Jon Howson can usually be relied upon to create chances, if not to score goals. And it is in front of goal that Norwich may run into difficulty. Cameron Jerome is a proven goalscorer in the Championship, but he has yet to fully prove himself in the Premier League, whilst Ricky van Wolfswinkel doesn’t seem to want to leave Carrow Road even though Alex Neil doesn’t seem to have much of a use for him. If Norwich can chance upon a regular Premier League goalscorer from somewhere, the lower mid-table certainly isn’t beyond them. Otherwise, Norwich will most likely face a battle and a half to cling onto their hard-earned Premier League place.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.
You can pay Twohundredpercent £5.1bn for three years exclusive rights on Facebook by clicking here.