How Are the Premier League Title Contenders Shaping Up? Arsenal to Leicester

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistJuly 29, 2016

What would constitute success for Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City this season?
What would constitute success for Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City this season?Associated Press

In any other season, Pep Guardiola pitching up at Manchester City would probably take all other bets off the table.

A bona fide A-list coach, backed with pockets so deep he has to attach himself to abseiling ropes every time he searches for change, would in normal circumstances reduce the rest of the Premier League to arguing among themselves for the remaining UEFA Champions League spots.

This is a post-Leicester City world, though. A world altered ever so slightly by a sporting miracle that has rendered merely competing for silverware nowhere near good enough. If Leicester can win the Premier League title, all excuses for City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea are off the table.

When you add into the mix the fact that foreign coaches at the very peak of their powers have been installed at all the top clubs, along with a television deal so lucrative it hasn't just made the rich even richer but spawned princes from paupers, it's hard to remember a time when the Premier League has been as competitive.

The lucre may be filthy, but it's going to make for an engrossing 2016/17 season. 

For Guardiola at City, read Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. The neighbours may still be noisy, but the most cutting verbals will almost certainly come from the cobbled streets on the red side of the city rather than blue. With Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Alex Ferguson watching his every move, Mourinho will seemingly be on his best behaviour. He will be, when he's winning.

It's all about double training sessions at Chelsea, as Antonio Conte beds into his new gig while wearing the look of a man who "knows people." If he can't improve on the dethroned champions' abject 10th-place finish last season, expect several star names to go on long drives and never come back.

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino may be a season ahead of Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp in terms of exacting his long-term plan of establishing Tottenham as a major force, but the German's ebullient energy means Liverpool might come good quicker than many anticipate. At Borussia Dortmund, he needed a sixth- and fifth-place finish before winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles.

Arsenal are still Arsenal. Arsene Wenger is still Arsene Wenger.

The very essence of competition dictates there will be one winner and the rest losers, but perhaps it is time to reassess what constitutes success and failure, given it would be possible to finish as low as seventh, even eighth next season and still fundamentally have done a decent job.

It doesn't take the mind of Stephen Hawking to work out seven into one doesn't go (West Ham United and Southampton supporters may argue it should be nine into one, given their respective positions last season), while even seven (or nine) into four Champions League places is going to lead to some uncomfortable boardroom chats for at least a few high-profile managers in May.

Last season, the underdog bit the top dog(s) on the arse all campaign. As fun as it was, it's unlikely to be repeated this term. Complacent big hitters are unlikely to leave their chins exposed this time around, with new corner men Guardiola, Mourinho and Conte among the best in the business.

In just two weeks, the start of the Premier League season means the world can stop trying in vain to learn things from friendlies, as happy summer memories of not playing matches on flooded Beijing pitches become curled at the edges, faded yellowed photographs thrown in a drawer never to be seen again.

Here we look at Arsenal, Chelsea and Leicester City, assessing where they are at and what they still need to do, while earmarking what would constitute (relative) success for the forthcoming season. 

On Saturday, we will run the rule over Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham. 


Arsenal (2nd last season)


What's been going on?

To the chagrin of the club's supporters, not a right lot. If the capture of Granit Xhaka in late May gave the impression Arsenal were going to hit the market hard and early, subsequent dealings, or rather lack thereof, mean they look ill-equipped to go any better than recent seasons in which they've made goo-goo eyes at the title but never been close to consummation.

Gunners manager Wenger's thwarted pursuit of Jamie Vardy seemed a significant but not unwelcome change of (transfer) tack on the Frenchman's behalf. It was as though he had finally accepted the time is now, rather than perpetually living in the future. Wenger has never previously paid more than £10 million for a player 29 or over; here, he was reportedly willing to go to £20 million, according to Jeremy Wilson of the Telegraph among others.

Having the option of knocking a ball in behind for Vardy to chase would likely have quelled Arsenal's perennial predilection to overpass in the centre of the pitch. He would also have been the nasty sod it is blindingly obvious they have needed for years.

Since then, Wenger has been like a teenager who thinks he'll never get over being spurned by his first love, having seemingly spent the summer moping and playing Morrissey on a loop. Big-name strikers like Gonzalo Higuain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Edinson Cavani have been speculated as potential targets to no avail.

Everyone else has been throwing around TV money like confetti at a wedding. Rob Holding has arrived as a decent prospect from Bolton Wanderers, but even before a knee injury ruled Per Mertesacker out until Christmas, it was clear Arsenal needed to acquire a first-team-ready centre-half. Now it's an emergency.

With Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil all to return to pre-season late, after extended exertions at Euro 2016, Arsenal are in real danger of beginning the new campaign from a standing start. They have less been jogging on the spot than sleeping on the job.

It seems unlikely chief executive Ivan Gazidis' claim, according to Sky Sports, that Arsenal "can't afford to outgun competitors that have far more money to splurge on transfer fees than we do" will placate holders of some of the most expensive season tickets in European football.

Of course, the moaning and sniping would be all but silenced should they land PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City, a deal reportedly close to being done, according to French website Le Buteur (via the Sun) among others.


What would constitute success?

After their highest Premier League finish in 11 years, they should not look down from last season's second place. Much mirth was had at usurping Tottenham for the runners-up spot, but everyone at the club will be aware they will perhaps never again have a more straightforward chance to win it.

Finishing 10 points behind Leicester is hardly reason for the popping of champagne corks. It's hard to think both Manchester clubs and Chelsea won't be significantly better than last season, Liverpool most probably, too, so even achieving a Champions League place won't be plain sailing.

Ins: Granit Xhaka (£33.8 million, Borussia Monchengladbach), Rob Holding (£2 million, Bolton), Takuma Asano (undisclosed, Sanfrecce Hiroshima).

Outs: Isaac Hayden (£2.5 million, Newcastle United), Wellington Silva (undisclosed, Fluminense), Jon Toral (loan, Granada), Dan Crowley (loan, Oxford United), Ryan Huddart (loan, Eastleigh), Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky (all released).


Chelsea (10th last season)


What's been going on?

For a side in possession of an abundance of talent but one that looked flat and lifeless last season in an embarrassing defence of the title they had won the previous campaign, the acquisition of N'Golo Kante may just be the perfect transfer.

No player in the Premier League read the game better than Kante last season. A master pickpocket, he made more interceptions (156) and tackles (175) than any other player in any of Europe's top five leagues, according to Opta. The Frenchman could peel an orange in your pocket without you noticing. 

Conte loves his sides to play with indefatigable energy and engage in a high-pressing game when out of possession. Kante could be key to dictating Chelsea's rhythm; a human metronome, he should get even better playing under a manager who was a similar water carrier in his own playing days.

After his season-long sabbatical, Eden Hazard sparkled at Euro 2016 and appears to have the bit back between his teeth after falling out of love with Mourinho, and perhaps Chelsea, for much of the domestic campaign. It will take a braver man than the Belgian to risk the wrath that would be unleashed should he disobey his manager's instructions.

If Conte ever wants to play a back three in a high line, he needs to convince Roman Abramovich to buy him another centre-half. He'd love to be reunited with Juventus warhorse Leonardo Bonucci but will have to move swiftly if he's to avoid John Terry, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic being his options as a three.

It's unlikely he would risk the trio resembling Last of the Summer Wine alumni Compo, Cleggy and Foggy chasing an errant shopping basket rolling down a hill whenever they faced a striker with any pace.

In pre-season, he has adopted a 4-4-2 formation, moving Chelsea away from their tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1. Cesc Fabregas had a campaign very much to forget last term, and while there remain reservations about his capabilities of playing in a central two, he has impressed Conte and will almost certainly start the season as first choice alongside Kante.

Victor Moses has been a surprising star of Chelsea's pre-season to date, and he looks assured to start the term as part of Conte's squad as opposed to being loaned out. Maybe he could be to Chelsea what Emanuele Giaccherini was to Conte's Italy over the summer. 

It will be interesting to see how Conte deals with Diego Costa if he stays in London, as the Spain international has spent most of the summer featuring in speculation of a return to Atletico Madrid. The pair will either love each other or end up engaging in tops-off wrestling at Chelsea's Cobham training ground before the end of August. Either scenario should ensure entertaining scenes ensue.

At £33 million, new Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi arrives from Olympique Marseille having earned comparisons with Didier Drogba. If Costa leaves, Batshuayi will have to hit the ground running, with Chelsea short of options at centre-forward to the extent Conte has experimented with Ruben Loftus-Cheek in an advanced role.

According to the Telegraph's Matt Law: "Conte wants to add another four players to his Chelsea squad before the end of the transfer window that could take the club’s summer spending over the £150 million mark."

Real Madrid's Alvaro Morata and Romelu Lukaku of Everton are cited as striker options. Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly is thought to be a consideration at centre-half, as are Kostas Manolas of AS Roma and Benfica's Victor Lindelof. 


What would constitute success? 

It's an interesting one, Chelsea. Conte is working with a squad that won the Premier League title the season before last, and he has been allowed to spend over £60 million in bringing in just two players. Throughout his career, he's been a serial winner, and he clearly knows how to build a title-winning team.

Chelsea were diabolical last season, but without the distraction of Champions League football, Conte will have plenty of time to work with his players in comparison to his rivals. He's at his best on the training ground and has quickly made an impression on his new charges. When he speaks, you listen. 

After finishing 10th last season, a return to the top four would sate the demands of the club's board but perhaps not Conte's demands. If he can add another stellar signing before the close of the transfer window, a title push might not be beyond Chelsea.

Ins: Michy Batshuayi (£33 million, Marseille), N’Golo Kante (£30 million, Leicester City).

Outs: Stipe Perica (£3 million, Udinese), Wallace (loan, Gremio), Andreas Christensen (loan, Borussia Monchengladbach), Nathan Ake (loan, Bournemouth), Nathan (loan, Vitesse Arnhem), Lewis Baker (loan, Vitesse), Alex Kiwomya (loan, Crewe Alexandra), Joao Rodriguez (loan, Santa Fe), Charly Musonda (loan, Real Betis), Mitchell Beeney (loan, Crawley Town), Kasey Palmer (loan, Huddersfield Town), Victorien Angban and Jeremie Boga (loan, Granada), Tomas Kalas (loan, Fulham), Matej Delac (loan, Mouscron-Peruwelz), Reece Mitchell (free, Chesterfield), John Swift (free, Reading), Marco Amelia and Kevin Wright (both released).


Leicester City (1st last season) 


What's been going on?

If, as expected, over the next few days Mahrez follows Kante in leaving the Premier League champions, Claudio Ranieri will need to be at his pugnacious best to keep spirits high at Leicester City.

The Italian has been resolutely pragmatic in his approach to summer raids on his star names, firm in his insistence any player who wants to leave should be allowed to do so. He appears to have borrowed from Albert Camus' observation: "Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken."

Still, it's hard not to feel a little depressed by it all. Not all Leicester supporters will be as understanding as Ranieri or Camus.

Maybe Jerry Seinfield's take on loyalty in sport is more apt:

Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify. Because the players are always changing, the team could move to another city…you're actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it.

You're standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.

Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they’ll boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him now! Boo! Different shirt! Boo…

Could neither Kante nor Mahrez have not found it in them to give it another season, to taste Champions League football with a side forever immortalised in sport's great annals for its remarkable once-in-a-lifetime achievement? Why not dream of going one better, when you've already flicked the bird at the impossible?

Nothing Mahrez or Kante can achieve at Arsenal or Chelsea can come even close to matching what they did at Leicester.

The coup de grace may still be around the corner. If Vardy doesn't weep into his pillow should Mahrez be unveiled as an Arsenal player, inconsolably wailing, "it should have been me," he's a better man than he is given credit for. Vardy signing for a big-name rival that has started the season slowly on deadline day is the bet of the summer.

New boy Nampalys Mendy is a player Ranieri knows well from their time together at AS Monaco. Whether he can fill a gargantuan hole left by Kante's departure remains to be seen. The addition of Ahmed Musa to help support Vardy up front gives Leicester even more pace on the counter-attack. They may go a little longer to make up for a loss of guile in midfield, if Mahrez moves to north London.

Coping with the demands of UEFA Champions League football alongside domestic games will be the hardest task Ranieri has to juggle. He may have shed his Tinkerman moniker at Leicester, but it could well resurface this season.


What would constitute success?

Ranieri will be allowed to reinvest the Mahrez money should he go, but it would have been hard enough to keep pace again at the summit with a full complement of his title-winning side. Now the vultures have struck, a top-seven finish would still be quite the achievement for the Foxes.

If they can convince Mahrez to stay (I hope they do, but suspect they won't), a tilt at a top-four finish may not be beyond them.

Ins: Ahmed Musa (£16.6 million, CSKA Moscow), Nampalys Mendy (£13 million, Nice), Ron-Robert Zieler (£3 million, Hannover 96), Luis Hernandez (free, Sporting Gijon), Raul Uche (undisclosed, Rayo Vallecano).

Outs: N’Golo Kante (£30 million, Chelsea), Andrej Kramaric (£8.5 million, Hoffenheim), Joe Dodoo (free, Rangers), Jacob Blyth (free, Motherwell), Jonathan Maddison (free, Yeovil Town), Ryan Watson (free, Barnet), Paul Konchesky (free, Gillingham), Kyle Bailey, Jack Barmby, Dean Hammond, Aaron Hassall, Michael Kelly, Keenan King, Harrison Panayiotou, Mark Schwarzer and Max Smith-Varnam (all released).


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