Last season's Premiership was very much a two-horse race after the New Year. In the end Liverpool had an astounding season but were pipped to the finish line by slow starting Manchester United. Chelsea were also within touching distance, but never seemed to get going until Guus Hiddink replaced Solari.
Arsenal finished fourth, and a massive 18 points (6 wins) behind Man Utd! There was a period where Aston Villa looked like they would steal fourth, but suffered a large dip in form and their challenge withered. Everton, like Aston Villa, had a terrific season, but when you consider that both were almost 30 points (10 wins) behind the champions, it’s hard to imagine they could ever get higher than a No. 4 spot at best.
While I won't make any predictions about the next season, I evaluate the big four (and perhaps some others), explaining why I think they will do better or worse than last season, and how that could potentially make the upcoming year of football much more uncertain, and hopefully, more exciting!
The 2008/2009 Premier League champions, Manchester United enjoyed a fairly bland season. They did not play brilliantly every match, or even every other match, losing more games than Liverpool. Many pundits say a championship winning side will beat opponents even when they play badly, I'd counter that it gave supporters much confidence!
Their biggest strength was their defense that went though a record run of clean sheets, with 24 in total, as well as conceding the joint least goals, making them statistically the hardest team to score against. This was the biggest reason for winning the league.
This year things have changed. While the defense will remain the same, and could again prove hard to break down, the loss of Tevez, and more importantly Ronaldo, have led many to believe that Man Utd will change to a more traditional 4-4-2 formation. Valencia will not be a straight replacement for Ronaldo, and this change in style, and increasing reliance on Rooney and Berbatov to score, could create problems.
Influential players such as Giggs, Van Der Sar and Scholes are also going to be dropped from more games that last season, and whilst they undoubtedly are fantastic players, they are getting too long in the tooth to play 90 minutes every week—sometimes twice a week! I am not convinced that Nani, Foster and Anderson are good enough yet to entirely replace these Old Trafford legends.
Verdict: I expect Man Utd to experience growing pains with a new formation, meaning it's most likely that they will not do as well as they did previously. Having said that, I would still rate them as a leading contender to win the league, assuming everything gels together smoothly.
Despite not winning, or even coming runners up in the league, Chelsea still had a good season, finishing three points behind Liverpool. After an impressive start under Scolari, things quickly went south and it culminated in the sacking of Scolari and the appointment of Hiddink. Hiddink turned things around for Chelsea and their final months of the season were as impressive as Man Utd and Liverpool.
Ancelloti has now taken the reigns at Stamford Bridge, and while he enjoyed success at AC Milan, I'm not convinced he is the man for Chelsea. Having a new manager could go either way for the Blues, as it did for Scolari and Hiddink. Time will tell if Chelsea fans look back on Ancelotti favourably or angrily.
On top of a new manager, Chelsea have a relatively old squad when compared to Man Utd and Arsenal. Lampard, Drogba and Ballack are reaching the twilight of their careers, and the former two and perhaps the key players. How many more seasons can Lampard play in every game and still put away 20 or more goals?
Similarly, Drogba and Malouda (he had me surprised) seemed to play amazingly well under Hiddink, but not Scolari. Can Ancelotti achieve what Hiddink did?
The return of Joe Cole from his wedding...er injury, could breath some life into the squad. The purchase of Zhirkov could as well, but so far Chelsea seem to be missing out on the star players they are rumored to be chasing, Pato, Ribery etc.
Verdict: I think Chelsea's season could be very hit and miss, depending on the manager. If Hiddink were to have stayed on, I would put Chelsea as the favorite to win the league. If Ancelotti can cope with the egos and age of the Chelsea squad, they can do well.
Let's face the facts, Arsenal had a pretty awful time last season. At moments it looked like they would lose a Champions League spot to Aston Villa, although ultimately they would prevail with a large margin of points.
Many people, both friends and foes of Arsenal, suggest that Arsenal's biggest problem is their lack of physical presence on the pitch, particularly midfield. I agree, however, I think that there were larger contributors to Arsenal's poor season.
Firstly, long term injuries on key players were more apparent on Arsenal than any other top four team. Rosicky, Eduardo, Walcott and Fabregas all of those players were out for a long period. Perhaps this brings up some questions about the depth of Arsenal's squad, with maybe an over reliance on youth (albeit talented) to fill in the gaps. If these injuries can be avoided, Arsenal will be a force to be reckoned with.
On top of that, I feel another problem facing Arsenal is the mental discipline of one or two players. I wont name people (Gallas, Eboue), but sometimes they seem on a different planet and really need a stern talking to about their attitude. Obviously this is not something only Arsenal have to deal with, but when your captain goes to the media and slates the team, you have problems.
Verdict: I am quietly optimistic that Arsenal could emerge from the ashes of the last campaign a much more competitive team. They have already proven that they can beat the big teams in games, but just need to find the ability to beat smaller teams (i.e. Hull) more consistently. The avoidance of injuries and Bendter (Arsenal need to get him significantly better or get rid) could produce startling results!
You have to feel sorry for Liverpool fans, they came so close to the coveted league title. For the majority of the season, and indeed at Christmas, Liverpool were in pole position to win. Unfortunately for them, Man Utd always seemed to have another game to play!
Liverpool's most obvious problem was their outstanding ability to draw at home to relatively rubbish teams. They lost the fewest games in the league but somehow managed to fall behind Man Utd. It was something that really confused Rafa Benitez, judging by his end of season comments.
Liverpool did however play fantastically well for most of the season, and those draws really kicked them in the teeth. I am concerned that they won't be able to replicate their success next season, as I believe that the squad played above themselves, and they need more depth. Glen Johnson, although expensive, seems like the kind of purchase Benitez should be making.
Speaking of Benitez, I think it would help the team if he stops making comments and rants to the media. Whether he is correct in what he says/said doesn't matter, he makes himself seem like a bit of a whiner.
Verdict: Providing that Liverpool can find the same hunger and performance levels they did previously, win more home games, get another striker (Keane was a huge flop) and perhaps stop leaving it till the last minute of extra time to score vital goals, I believe Liverpool have every chance of winning the league next season.
Aston Villa: Villa had an amazing first half of the season, and whilst doing it gave Arsenal a huge kick up the backside. Unfortunately for them, the second half of the season was full of jaded performances and they seemed the shadow of the team they were earlier in the football year. They have now lost Barry and key defender Laursen, and while they still have talent and youth in players such as Young and Milner, I can't seem them troubling the top four like they have done.
Everton: You have to respect the team Moyes has put together. He has taken Lescott and Jageilka from the Championship and made them highly sort after defenders. He managed to go a significant part of the season without any strikers and still win games. And they got to the FA Cup final. I see them being a constant threat to the top four, but can't see them doing enough to break the top four
Manchester City: Sooner or later, Man City are going to force their way into the top four. Will it be this coming season? I'm not sure. They have a huge array of attacking talent already with: Robinho, Ireland, Santa Cruz, most likely Tevez and possibly Eto—notice how I don't mention Bellamy, tosser!. I'm not convinced by their defense though, and whilst I'm sure Hughes is looking into it, I don't know if it will be steadfast in time for the next season. Perhaps towards the end of the transfer season we shall all have a better idea of where City stand.
So why do I think next season should be a lot tighter, at least between the big four? Firstly, I expect Man Utd to do worse, and Arsenal to do better. That brings the top four a lot closer together. Chelsea and Liverpool could go either way, it's hard to tell as one has had a change in manager and the other hasn't done much in the way of squad changing.
I highly doubt anyone outside the top four to break into it just yet. Although the jury is still out on Man City , I would give them at least another season before they crack in there.