Now that the new English Premier League (EPL) season is about to begin, it's time to look at how the Big Four (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United) did in the transfer market, and what that means in terms of their chances of winning the championship. But first, some thoughts on the overall tendencies of the market, and the resulting balance between the EPL and the Spanish Liga...
EPL vs La Liga. If for the last five years, the EPL has dominated European football, this year might mark the end of that supremacy. An obvious indicator would be Cristiano Ronaldo's departure. However, in the competition between the two leagues, there's more to add.
Spain (mainly Real and Barça) has also managed to attract the best players of other leagues—such as Kaká and Ibrahimovic from Italy, and Benzema from France. If Ribery moves from Bayern to the Spanish league, the grand slam will be complete: the best players from each of the four (out of five, with La Liga) major European leagues (best two, in the case of Italy) lost to La Liga.
It could obviously be argued that this is a tendency largely concentrated around Barcelona and Real Madrid, and to a large extent that assessment would be correct. However, it should be noticed that the other Spanish teams have at least managed to keep their best players. David Villa's continuation in Valencia is a good example of this.
The major problem for the EPL is that in comparison with this huge flow of talent to Spain, the major English clubs have very little to show in terms of added talent to the competition. An overview of the new faces in the Premier League would tell that the most important newcomers were Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen (from Ajax), Birmingham's Christian Benitez (from Santos Laguna), and Chelsea's Yuri Zhirkov (From CSKA Moscow), clearly not the most famous players in the world.
Despite all this, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United will still have squads capable of dominating the league and, at the same time, doing reasonably well in Europe. Let's thus take a short look at their prospects:
Arsenal. I would say this is a decisive year for Arsene Wenger. Developing young players and being competitive at the same time is always admirable in football, and supporters certainly love it, but there is a limit to that love when not accompanied by silverware, and it has been four years since the Gunners won a trophy (FA Cup against Man Utd). The off-season has been quite calm (once again); with the exception of the above-mentioned Vermaelen, there was no major new signing at the Emirates Stadium.
A healty Eduardo could be Arsenal's best 'newcomer,' but it is clear neither how good the Croatian-Brazilian can be nor if it is sufficient to make fans forget about Adebayor departure to newly rich Man City. The club's striking power seems to be thin to cover all the major fronts in which Arsenal will be involved. Unless the midfield is able to cover that gap, the Gunners will end up having another season of good football but no trophies.
Chelsea. Despite all the summer frenzy, and excluding the addition of the Russian international Zhirkov, Chelsea will begin the next season with basically the same squad that finished 2008/9. Leading the team will be a new manager, Carlo Ancelotti, that could well be the most important addition in 2009, not only to Chelsea, but to the whole EPL, if he manages to display the same kind of managerial skills he showed in Italy. After a succession of failed managers and temporary care-takers, the Blues might finally settle for the first time since the Special One left.
Stability is thus the main goal of this year's Chelsea, and the fact that their squad is composed by a group of players that have been together for quite some time, can only help. The only problem with this team is its expiry date. Terry, Ballack, Carvalho, Deco, Lampard, Drogba, and Anelka are not getting any younger, and even though they are more than capable of defeating any side in Europe, this might be a team near the end of the line.
A deep look at the squad will reveal a structure inherited from Mourinho, that is, a structure that is five years old: Cech, Terry, Carvalho, Cole, Essien and Drogba constitute the same back-bone that led Chelsea to seven domestic trophies since then. However, for a club that got used to winning, the fact that their last Premier League trophy was in 2006 is just not good enough. For a major reform (including Abramovich departure?) not to happen in Stamford Bridge, the Blues will have to do more this season, in England... and maybe in Europe.
Liverpool. Istanbul's magical night has been guaranteeing Rafa Benitez job for some years now. The question is until when? With Glen Johnson as the only major signing so far, the Spanish manager will be dealing with the same squad that so clearly underachieved last season. Cristiano Ronaldo's departure means, not only that Man Utd is not as threatening as last season, but also that Liverpool was left with arguably the two best players in the country: Gerrard and Torres. This means that Benitez has largely run out of excuses not to bring the first league title to Merseyside since 1990.
From the goalkeeper to the striker, Liverpool has a balanced and deep squad that should be able to win on a regular basis. The biggest obstacle to the team's success might actually be outside the pitch, with the battle over the club's ownership about to have new developments. Sorting out this long-lasting soap opera might actually be what determines whether Liverpool will be finally able to go all the way in the EPL.
Manchester United. The reigning champion, the best manager in the country (world?), and a clear winning mentality. Another season of success? Unlikely. Even though Sir Alex Ferguson and Rio Ferdinand have already come out in public to defend the quality of the squad, without Ronaldo and Tevez, reality shows they have lost two hugely important players.
Replacing Ronaldo will be impossible, but replacing his direct contribution to the team (in terms of goals and assists) is within the capacity of the current Man Utd squad, or at least it seems, judging by how these same players performed last season. The question that needs to be asked is how big was Ronaldo's indirect influence on the team? Discounting his last games for the club, where he showed less then full-commitment, Ronaldo always gave his teammates the feeling of security that comes when you are playing with arguably the best player on the planet.
The importance of that feeling will most likely determine whether Man Utd will indeed be able to keep their winning record, or whether the squad needed more changes than the ones Sir Alex Ferguson was willing to make during the summer break.
Other teams might be able to interfere with the big four this season, with Manchester City at the top of the list. However, for as impressive as their signings might be, the huge number of new players will take time to adapt, not only to each other, but to the pressure of having to win. In that sense, I would say fifth place is probably the best City might be able to achieve.
But who will be on top come next May? As things stand now, I would say this could be the most balanced Premier League ever, with all the big four being able to compete for the final trophy until the very end. And that might be just what the EPL needs to re-claim its throne as the best league in the world.