Some thoughts on the summer transfer window
Arsenal are weaker
Arsenal went into the summer needing an injection of experience, leadership and physical power. They wake up on September 1st with some of those things, but shorn of two of their three vital creative players.
Firstly, the signings. Gervinho had a very good season at Lille, helping them to win the French Championship. His arrival in England has been something of a rude awakening, but he’ll add goals from out wide and direct running with more of an end product than Theo Walcott is likely to provide (not to mention a terrible haircut to rival Bacary Sagna’s). Per Mertesacker adds experience and a physical presence to the side. There is the chance that he could be found out for pace, and Werder Bremen have not been known for defensive solidarity in recent years, but he should make a good foil for the excellent Thomas Vermaelen.
Mikel Arteta arrives practically as a direct replacement for Fabregas – both players were trained at Barcelona’s La Masia cantera as no.4s in the Guardiola mould; both have found themselves employed further forward in English football. The worry for Arsenal is that Arteta – though a very good player – is essentially a poor man’s Fabregas and has had injury troubles in recent years. Yossi Benayoun replaces Samir Nasri in the squad, but again – though a talented player I have a lot of time for, experienced and definitely of an ‘Arsenal’ type – not as good as the player he replaces. Andre Santos seems to be an archetypal Arsenal left-back – attacking but with the speed to recover defensively. I’m not going to claim to have seen him play enough to compare him with the likes of Ashley Cole or Gael Clichy positively or negatively, but he should slot in fairly comfortably by all accounts.
There have been other signings I’m also not qualified to debate the merits of (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jenkinson, Park C-Y), but it seems fairly clear that despite moves to address certain issues from last season (Mertesacker will improve them defensively at set-pieces), Arsenal have not been able to offset their losses. They still lack a consistent ballwinner in central midfield; Alex Song has played some excellent games for them and Frimpong appears to have raw promise, but even years later Arsenal have failed to adequately replace Patrick Vieira (Mathieu Flamini aside, albeit briefly). Now on top of that, they have lost two of the best players in the world and replaced them with passable replacements. Arsenal will continue to play lovely football, and remain a threat to the Champions League places, but they are certainly weaker coming out of the transfer window than they were going in.
Chelsea needed Luka Modric; they got Raul Meireles
Luka Modric was desperate to join Chelsea, and if reports of a £40million bid are correct, then Chelsea were desperate to sign him. Andre Villas-Boas addressed one of the two areas (three if you count a lack of pace at centre-back) he needs to address if he is to mould Chelsea into a more potent attacking team – and get the best out of Fernando Torres.
The signing of Juan Mata from Valencia adds a creator between the lines (aside from the now-departed Yossi Benayoun). Mata has been erroneously painted by the British press as a touchline-hugging winger, and though he nominally plays in a wide role, he is more often than not likely to drift inside into the no.10 position (a role that he also plays very well, but is unlikely to do so in Villas-Boas’s 4-3-3 system).
Since the days of Jose Mourinho, Chelsea have largely been built for one thing in an attacking sense: to get the ball up to Drogba with his back to goal early, and from there to feed play to the wide areas for wingers and full-backs to pull the ball across goal for onrushing midfielders and forwards – functional, but effective. Torres, by contrast, prefers to run into the space behind defences and latch onto through balls. A player like Mata drifting in from the right or left of a front three (I think right more often than not, like the left-footed Hulk at Porto) can provide those passes.
What Chelsea needed to complete the puzzle was a central midfielder who can move the ball quickly and accurately, and who is capable of switching the point of attack by seeing passes from deeper areas that others cannot spot. Raul Meireles is a very good box-to-box midfield player and perfectly capable of keeping possession nicely, but his passing is not incisive in the manner required. Meireles’ great strength is his engine, which allows him to get on the end of things in the penalty area as is required in the Drogba-style Chelsea.
The problem is that Chelsea already have a player who has made a career of doing this: Frank Lampard. Aside from the balance issues of playing two forward-running midfielders (even in a three), you have the potential for Lampard, Mata and Meireles all looking to run into the same space between the opposition’s midfield and defence. Modric would have been the player who held back and found the players taking up those positions – the first link in a chain that led to Torres (or Drogba, or Lukaku). Chelsea will still be a threat in the title race, but a huge onus will be placed upon Mata as the sole creator.
The Manchester clubs look formidable, but titles are won in May
Last weekend saw Tottenham Hotspur destroyed 5–1 at home by Manchester City, while Manchester United eviscerated Arsenal 8–2 at Old Trafford. Both Manchester teams have started the season unbeaten and have looked very strong, sitting pretty in first and second after three games. That’s three games as in 35 to go, and three games that have not offered any real challenge to either side.
So far Manchester City have swatted aside newly-promoted Swansea, conceded twice in an admittedly excellent performance against Bolton and come up against the Harry Redknapp tactical masterclass of playing Krancjar and Modric as a central midfield two in the Spurs game. The most that can be read from these matches is that City’s ridiculously gifted squad of players is capable of crushing inexperienced, average or tactically-anarchic sides. Quelle surprise. I have no intention of raining on City’s parade just yet because their squad is terrifyingly good, but it’s worth raising a few points.
Firstly, the team is shifting away from its 4-3-3 formation to accommodate Sergio Aguero and the in-form Edin Dzeko. Of course, City have some very good holding midfielders who should be capable of dominating the centre of the pitch even in a two, but Aguero is less likely to drop back to help the team if required than Yaya Toure in an advanced role was. Conversely, there is no guarantee that Roberto Mancini won’t ‘revert to type’ and switch to a more defensive system if the team struggles away from home, potentially turning victories into draws.
Secondly, and this seems almost churlish to suggest given their excellent defensive record last season, City have one top-level centre back in Vincent Kompany, partnered by one of Kolo Toure – whose form has fluctuated in the past – or Joleon Lescott, who is more of a ‘solid Premier League performer’ than anything else. As stated, Manchester City’s defence was largely excellent last season, but in a more expansive system (Mancini has emphasised the need to score more this season) there is the chance those defenders will find themselves more exposed against good opposition.
Meanwhile, over in the red half of Manchester, Alex Ferguson has introduced a greater element of youth to last season’s title winners. The likes of Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley have stepped in and performed very well, while the summer’s marquee attacking signing Ashley Young appears to have made the step up to a higher standard of football with ease. Most ominously for other clubs, Wayne Rooney appears to be in his best form for some time.
But again, there has been little by way of a challenge to United in their opening matches. Shattering the practically broken husk of an Arsenal team (Arsenal in name alone) was no greater feat than kicking a dead pig. United preceded City in steamrollering Spurs, but Spurs have not started the season well amid disquiet over Modric’s soon-to-be non-transfer. It is also worth noting that West Brom gave United a scare in the season opener. Like City, United have an excellent squad and are rightly the favourites for the title. But like City, no significant questions have been asked of them yet.
Manchester United went into the summer needing to strengthen in central midfield. Paul Scholes had retired, Owen Hargreaves had been released, Ryan Giggs was another year older and Darren Fletcher has been weighted down by an ongoing virus problem. United signed a goalkeeper, a centre-back and a winger. The first they needed, and despite early jitters David De Gea is a very talented goalkeeper who should prove himself over time. The latter two are more questionable in light of the fact that the centre of midfield has remained untouched. Of course, Cleverley has started the season very well and Anderson has been excellent, but the former is very inexperienced at this level and the latter has spent his entire United career blowing hot and cold. The likes of Carrick and Giggs remain in reserve, but it is an area that remains a weakness (and for the record, not one I feel would have been truly fixed by the signing of Wesley Sneijder, who is more of a no.10).
The reason for pointing these (perhaps somewhat meagre) issues out is as a response to the excitability of the British press after a few early season showings. Last season Chelsea stormed out of the blocks only to stutter horribly mid-season – by the time their form had recovered, the title race was over. No team is infallible and the season is long. Only a brave man would bet against one of the two Manchester sides taking the title at the moment, but each has their weaknesses. It is up to the rest of the league to learn how to exploit them.