Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Why next season will be the greatest title race ever

Where now?
Let's face it. 12/13 was a rubbish Premiership season, in many ways. We knew the bottom two teams were down in about mid-March, and Wigan's relegation was confirmed before the final day, despite their shock FA Cup win. At various times in the season, the likes of Norwich, Southampton, Aston Villa, Stoke, Newcastle and Sunderland looked like genuine relegation candidates. To the credit of those teams, they all managed to put a run together before they became 'the chasers', rather than the ones being chased.

The Premiership title was an entirely different matter. United ended Chelsea's positive start by clinching a dramatic win at Stamford Bridge, and from December onwards, there was never any doubt as to which part of Manchester the title was going. United stormed to an 11 point lead, Manchester City didn't show up. The interesting thing is, City and Chelsea have better individual players than Manchester United. This leads me to the logic that the difference last season, between City and United, was Mancini and Ferguson. 

Ferguson departs
Ferguson ingrained a winning mentality into that Man U team, integrating the perfect blend of determined youth and calm experience. Looking at their results last season, it strikes me that every time United lost a game, they would win their next 5 in a row. Apart from at the end of the season when the title was wrapped up, they never went on a bad run, and were always able to drastically pick themselves up after the occasional loss.

Hughes/Redknapp at QPR aside, Mancini has had the worst season of all the Premiership managers. After winning the league title by only goal difference the previous year, he foolishly allowed his side to get complacent. This, when competing against a team like Manchester United, was the one thing Mancini couldn't afford to do. His tactical nous had been poor, initially switching the system to 3 at the back, when the tactic they had was working well. In the game against Tottenham, he failed to come up with a plan to deal with Gareth Bale, as Ferguson did successfully. His 2012 summer transfer activity, bringing in the likes of Sinclair, Rodwell and Garcia, weakened the squad. Sergio Aguero and David Silva showed merely glimpses of what they did last season, and Nasri didn't come to life until the final quarter of the campaign. 
Poor season - Mancini

Many say the difference for United this season was the signing of Robin van Persie, yet the stats suggest otherwise. They finished with the same number of points as they did the season before, only City have 11 less. On that evidence, the capitulation of City has to go down as the reason United won, and because City have more world-class players, the blame must lie squarely on Mancini's shoulders. They were right to fire him.

So how will things change this season? What I'm very excited about is that each of the top 3 clubs are bringing a new manager in, and it's tough to call what effect the new men will have. With both Mancini and Ferguson leaving, it'll be a lot closer between City and United. Throw into the mix the highly-anticipated return of Mourinho at Stamford Bridge, with around £100 million to spend, and we've got one hell of a title race on our hands.

A challenge for Moyes
I have my inner-doubts about David Moyes as Manchester United manager. What he's done for Everton is fantastic. He's developed players brilliantly, ingrained a strong work ethic into the team and to spend a net total of £16 million over the course of 10 years, and still establish them  in the top 7 of the Premiership is a fantastic job. I've got a lot of respect for him. However, a big part of how he's done this is by employing a 'no ego' approach. Everton can't attract the pre-Madonnas in football, so their path has been to build a team of humble, hard-working players, who strive to become bigger than the sum of their parts. This involves getting rid of players who believe themselves to be 'bigger than the club'. And this type of management will only take you so far. 

United can be confused with a club that has won so much, because of the desire and work ethic in the team. Of course this certainly helps, it has provided them with the bedrock for their success, yet it's not the key factor. Manchester United won 3 titles and 2 domestic doubles between 1992 and 1996, because of Cantona. They won the Premiership three times in a row between 2007 and 2009, and 2 Champions League finals, one of which they won, because of Ronaldo at his peak. Without these legendary superstars who are a little bit arrogant, but whom Ferguson has made allowances for, Manchester United would not have anywhere near as many trophies as they do.

If the equivalent of Cantona first walks in and decides not to do any physical training, or the new Ronaldo doesn't want to head the ball, how will Moyes respond? It would be a brief relationship! Conversely, Ferguson had an excellent knack for reverse psychology. He recognized that because of certain players' talent, they needed to be pampered and treated in a special way. Because of this, Cantona did begin to participate in physical training out of respect, and Ronaldo ended up notorious for being a great headed goalscorer. As far, Moyes lacks that ability to treat his best players differently, and will need to compromise his philosophy if he wants to succeed at Old Trafford.

Pellegrini is clearly going to Manchester City, who have already confirmed the signing of Jesus Navas. That's a decent appointment for City. Pellegrini has established Malaga in the Champions League, quarter-finalists unbeaten in the group stages, he had experience at managing Real Madrid, and guided Villarreall to the Champions League semi-finals. I would also argue against criticisms that he hasn't won a trophy. The Copa Del Rey is the only achievable trophy at a club like Malaga, which is hard with Real Madrid and Barca always in the competition. Having no trophies is a reflection on his circumstances, not his ability.

Pellegrini will introduce a careful, methodical style to City's play. His previous teams have looked to take control of games, rather than hit the opposition with waves of attacks. Apparently he'll be asked to create a 4-3-3 tactic by chief Txiki Begiristain, which he's never operated before, although he's often been prepared to create systems in accordance with his best attacking players. Furthermore, Pellegrini has been known to like playmakers, which may give David Silva a more significant role.

So how will City's new Spaniard fare? I'd expect him to be an improvement, and perhaps his method of attempting to control games will thrive in Europe, an area Mancini failed. Teams such as Bayern and Barca, who have achieved sustainable European success, have had the ability to outclass most opposition, and stamp their authority on games. With a couple of quality signings, perhaps City will be able to do this.

However, spending isn't the main issue for City this summer. Whilst they need to improve the team, it must be partly done by getting the most out of the players they have, which Mancini couldn't do. Splashing out £100 million on 5 or 6 new players isn't the answer for them. They must go through a brief period of assessing the squad, getting rid of the flops who turn up for their wage packet, before buying players to enhance the team. It's essential they bring in players who are intrinsically motivated, and will help install a work ethic within the side, which seems to be missing at the moment.

If Pellegrini can bring in a long-term replacement for Yaya Toure, a 25-goal a season striker and a solid centre-back to partner Kompany, and get the best out of their key players, they'll be a force to be reckoned with in the title race.

Finally, it's the return of the special one. Jose Mourinho is back at Chelsea. Whilst some people
Return of the Special One
might knock his arrogance, or disapprove of his touchline antics, to me he'll always be a footballing legend. In this next title race, the one thing Mourinho will have in his favour, is immediate support from the fans. Man United supporters were sad to see Ferguson go, and the pressure will be on Moyes to live up to him. Most City fans didn't want Mancini to go, and Pellegrini will be judged from the off. Few Chelsea fans were particularly sad to see Benitez go, and they'll be delighted to see Mourinho back at Stamford Bridge. He will have the respect of the fans and players from the outset.

Of the 3 managers, he'll definitely have the biggest advantage in the transfer market. Having won league titles in Portugal, Italy and Spain as well as England, he'll have the best contacts, and the top players in Europe will want to play under him. It's obvious that more players would choose to play under Mourinho than David Moyes, for example, and the financial power at Chelsea should give Mourinho no problems in bringing in the players he wants.

Tara for Torres?
So who will he buy? Well, Chelsea need to do some reshuffling up front. Whilst scoring more than 20 goals last season was a respectable feat for Torres, most of them were in continental competitions against much weaker teams. This, in itself, suggests that Torres would fare better in the latter stages of his career, to be playing in a foreign league, maybe back in Spain. The Premier League is too physical a game for Torres to compete, he'd be better off leaving. Just 6 goals since signing in January represents a poor return for Demba Ba, and I'd look to move him on. If I was Mourinho, I would keep a hold of Lukaku, but buy a world-class forward, such as Cavani or Falcao, to increase the goal rate. A powerful forward would get the best out of their attacking midfielders, such as Hazard and Mata.

Alongside this, Chelsea are in need of long-term replacements for John Terry and Ashley Cole, and a solid holding midfielder, although Michael Essien could fill this role when he returns from Madrid. Mourinho has emphasized the need to develop the squad he has, yet on the 4 new players which will be necessary, I could see him spending up to £100 million.

No spend, no trophies, Mr Wenger
I don't give Arsenal or Tottenham a shout. Arsenal are in need of significant investment in their squad, but even if Wenger chooses to spend, the squad overhaul will either be done over the course of a few seasons, or in one summer, in which case new players will need time to settle. Tottenham don't hold the luxury of Champions League football to appease the top players with, and have become far to much of a one-man team in Gareth Bale, who will probably go to Real Madrid.

So it's a case of 'take your pick' from the top 3. I'm prepared to wait until August to make an official verdict, but my first instinct is that the title will go to Mourinho's Chelsea. I think he'll immediately glean the respect of his players, and through his multi-cultural experiences, will have matured to an extent that he won't be ruled by past glory. From his interview, he has said that he wants to build a team over time rather than be a 'quick fix' at Chelsea. That will go down well amongst the Chelsea faithful, and you'd have to say he's in the best position to get off to a good start in terms of summer signings, and early results.

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