Premier League Title Contenders Haven't Addressed Important Needs
As the countdown to the closing of the summer transfer market (August 31 at 12:00 p.m. CET) fast approaches, top Premier League teams are scrambling to finalize their rosters.
Even if the summer has brought much joy—a stellar signing or two, perhaps—the anxiety of what lies ahead eclipses everything else.
Added to that concern by the clubs' fans and mangers is what's already happened on the field. Opening weekend saw rather poor performances by nearly all title contenders.
Last season's top four—Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham—had a combined record of one win, two losses and one tie in the opening fixtures. Newly promoted West Ham and Stoke City together have more points than all four.
And the results don't tell the whole story.
The performances were arguably worse. Ranging from uninspiring (Arsenal) to costly (Manchester City) to downright poor (Manchester United), the top clubs clearly are lacking something to start the season.
What are the most pressing needs by the Premier League title contenders?
In spite of rallying from a 2-1 second-half deficit, Manchester City's 3-2 victory over Southhampton probably won't be remembered as an "inspiring comeback."
For one, the opposition was a newly promoted Southampton side. Certainly, last season's Championship runners-up are no slouch—they play a beautiful, possession game like Swansea City, and it wouldn't be a surprise if they finished comfortably mid-table—but Manchester City are the reigning Premier League champions.
However, the biggest storyline of the game was injury to star striker Sergio Aguero. With the Argentine possibly sidelined "a month or so" (Guardian), his absence will test manager Roberto Mancini's faith in his other star forwards—particularly Mario Ballotelli and Edin Dzeko, with Carlos Tevez to some extent—although he started the match Sunday.
Does any world-class bench inspire the likes of a manager less than City's does of Roberto Mancini?
It's hard to say. And yet, Mancini will have to turn there often in order to compete domestically and in Europe. On paper, Manchester City have one of the deepest teams in all of club football, but there's a few concerns that linger right beneath.
Manchester City have a very peculiar problem with their squad. They play a 4-4-2/4-2-2 system that is wildly successful in England but appears absolutely disastrous in Europe. Not only was this evidential in City's disappointment in the Champions League last season, but also in the late-season fatigue of their most important players, particularly David Silva.
Simply, not only has no team won a Champions League title since Liverpool in 2005 starting anything less than three central midfielders—Nasri and Silva are stationed out wide in what the Spanish like to call "interiores"—but the stress that this formation puts on the squad is rather stunning.
The rumors of Manicini trying to sign Scott Sinclair and Daniel de Rossi exhibit this beautifully: one's a creative attacking wide player (like Silva) while the other is a physical but sharp-passing central midfield (like Toure). Both positions are the ones in which City lives and dies by.
Another problem is in a spot where City ostensibly had no problem last year: defense. Letting up the league's fewest goals, Mancini's team would seemingly have more pressing issues elsewhere.
Unfortunately, Joleon Lescott has been struggling for health and form, and Mancini's experimentation with a unique three-man backline in the Chelsea contest, means that unless the team is committed to youngster Stefan Savic, which seems highly unlikely, Mancini will have to go out and get another center back.
Will Mancini get the funds he needs to play around in the transfer market? Or will City's only signing of the summer be a premature Jack Rodwell?
Needs: Attacking midfield, central midfield, central defense
United, on the other hand, have been very active in the transfer window.
Netting no less than four signings, the Red Devils have penned two of the biggest stars of the transfer window in Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie. With a combined scoring of 48 goals and 21 assists last season, Kagawa and van Persie make Manchester United arguably the most feared attack in the Premier League.
The first glimpses in action, however, were not that.
United lost their opening match to Everton, scoring no goals and looking flustered on both sides of the ball. Kagawa was one of United's few bright spots, admittedly, but Sir Alex Ferguson might need to rethink strategy.
Was United's problem last year really a lack of goals? In a sense, yes. Several key contests—specifically the 1-0 away loss to Manchester City that "decided" the title—got away from United because of their reliance on Wayne Rooney and a ever-revolving strike partner (Welbeck, Hernandez, Berbatov...) that sometimes didn't show up.
However, that concern is a bit exaggerated.
Four—four—less goals that Manchester United scored last season than Manchester City. The problem it seems was elsewhere.
Instead, many critics have suggested that United's problem is in the center. As I've argued recently, United basically are banking their survival on a 37-year-old veteran in Paul Scholes and the somewhat talented, somewhat underwhelming rotation of Tom Cleverly (21 years old), Michael Carrick (31 years old) and Anderson. The possible return of Darren Fletcher would certainly add some much-needed steel in the center of the pitch, but Fletcher's inability to stay healthy is a real concern.
Rather than attempting to light the league afire up front, the Red Devils should concern themselves with controlling the tempo of matches and provide a nice cover for their backline.
Speaking of which, the most immediate worry for United is the defense.
With Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia playing makeshift center back and right back, respectively, Manchester United only started two "true" defenders in the 1-0 loss to Everton Monday in Vidic and Evra.
The hope is that the injured Rio Ferdinand (31 years old) and youngsters Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Johnny Evans can step up when returned to fitness, but, again, there's a lot more questions there than answers.
Needs: Central midfield, left back, right back, central defense
The Gunners' performance Saturday was kind of a mixed bag of feelings.
Three new signings featured in the match against Sunderland, two of which were rather unimpressive—Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud—while Santi Cazorla, arguably the transfer steal of the summer, looked more than comfortable in the squad.
Podolski, Giroud, and Cazorla will have the task of trying to "absorb" the gap in goal-scoring and creativity left by Robin van Persie. Task is tall even for three individuals, as it was that van Persie just happened to score an unthinkable 31 goals and 11 assists last season.
However, the story doesn't stop there. Following the Sunderland tie, Arsenal announced the departure of Alex Song to Barcelona.
There seems to be a kind of revisionist history in North London that Song "wasn't needed anyway" or that he was "always out of position" or that "it was for the best of the team that he left."
Be that as it may, the Cameroonian international was still an integral part of Arsenal's high form late last season, and the player's mobility and knack for vertical playing—a Villas-Boas term which emphasizes long balls, through-balls and penetrative runs—were essential at an Arsenal team that dominates possession but often looks leery and unadventurous in front of goal.
Rennes youngster Yann M'Vila and Real Madrid midfielder Nuri Sahin seem like inspiring candidates to replace, and possibly enhance, the role of Song in the Arsenal team.
Another problem, as ever, is defense. Here the problem isn't so much a lack of personnel and injuries (although Bacaray Sagna's and Laurent Koscielny's absences are troubling), but at manager Arsene Wenger is forced—some would say "content"—with playing unready youngsters to fill the plugs.
With pace and confidence being key assets in the Arsenal defensive system, Wenger can't afford to keep playing the likes of Carl Jenkinson and Arman Traore.
Needs: Striker, defensive midfield, defense
The performance by Tottenham is probably the most promising of the bunch, in spite of the team coming away with nothing against Newcastle.
Part of this was that the expectations were rather low for manager Andres Villas-Boas and that the team didn't have many players from which to choose.
As such, the needs for Tottenham are numerous. Even with the securing of striker Emmanuel Adebayor, Villas-Boas will still look to find some forwards, particularly in the wider areas that he is so obsessed with (think Hulk at Porto and Sturridge at Chelsea).
In midfield, the Tottenham manager has his largest space to fill. The departure of Modric is an enormous loss for a team that had hitched its wagon to the Croatian's talents for quite a while. With news that Scott Parker is out a month (Yahoo! Sports), Tottenham will attempt to use some of the prospective money from the Modric transfer to purchase a midfielder or two to fill that void.
The other imminent area of concern is goalkeeper. After the disaster that was Heurelho Gomes, Brad Friedel was one of the brightest of spots on the team last season due to his experience in the Premiership.
Unfortunately, Friedel is 41.
Reports have circulated that Tottenham are pursuing Julio Cesar of Inter Milan and and Maarten Stekelenburg of AS Roma, but it might behoove Villas-Boas to be a bit wiser with the money, to purchase a less luxurious name in order to keep focus on the field players. Nevertheless, this is an enormous area of concern for the club.
In reality, Tottenham probably aren't as much of a title contender as the other three, particularly the two Manchester clubs, but with a few moves on the transfer market Villas-Boas's men can hope to see themselves finish again in the top four next season.
Needs: Forwards, central midfield, goalkeeper
These are, of course, not the only contenders for the Premier League title. Newcastle, Liverpool and Chelsea fans will have more than a bit to say, although it's arguable that those squads have smaller personnel concerns than the above four and should probably focus on player development and chemistry more than anything else.
Liverpool, for example could use another forward, but the prospects at most of the other positions—midfield, for example—have not only been addressed strongly in the transfer window (Joe Allen) but might best be found through the young players that have matriculated through the academy.
Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham will be eying these competitors and others in the Premier League all season, but right now, for the next few weeks at least, they might do best to more closely watch themselves.
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