Though the final day proved anti-climactic, last season’s Premier League title race provided thrills, spills and, ultimately, an incredibly tight finish with the top three clubs separated by just four points. For Manchester City, there was a second championship in three years. For Liverpool, there was bitter despair. And for Chelsea, there was a solid foundation on which to build.
For many, Jose Mourinho’s side are perfectly placed to reclaim the league crown they last won in 2010. Last term, they got close but not close enough. It’s accepted that the bulk of their squad will be hungrier, more motivated, driven to taste domestic success again. The club moved quickly and efficiently in the transfer market and sought to ease the problems encountered last season. Diego Costa, a fearsome powerhouse of an attacker, was a long-term target and unlike Samuel Eto’o, Demba Be and Fernando Torres last season, will be an imposing and intimidating presence up front. His remit is simple: score 20-plus goals and ease the burden on Eden Hazard. Costa will have some help from Cesc Fabregas – signed to hit double figures from midfield.
In many ways, Mourinho is using Carlo Ancelotti’s 2010 title-winning campaign as a template. Then, a powerful, formidable unit up front called Didier Drogba scored 29 league goals while a crafty, relentlessly consistent midfielder called Frank Lampard scored an incredible 22 times. The team managed to hit over 100 goals in total on their way to finishing as Premier League champions.
Though Mourinho is in the midst of a drought (his last trophy was the Spanish Super Cup he won with Real Madrid in August 2012), his ability to get results when they matter most is outstanding. Last season, in eight games against the rest of the top five, Chelsea won six of them. They suffered one defeat – to Everton early on in the campaign. But dig deeper and you’ll find Mourinho’s real strength. From those eight games, Chelsea scored 14 times but conceded a meagre three. His pragmatism will always outweigh his romantic notions. And despite Chelsea having an embarrassment of offensive riches, it’s no coincidence that they shipped the least amount of top-flight goals last term. Expect more of that this time around.
And what of the reigning champions? Hamstrung by UEFA Financial Fair Play punishments, it’s been an unusually quiet summer at Manchester City. They had to work within a transfer cap owing to their past misdemeanours and put the bulk of their energy towards one key deal – the arrival of centre-back Eliaquim Mangala from Porto.
Having scored 102 league goals, the side certainly doesn’t need much polishing up front though the injuries to Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo’s alarming loss of form in the second half of the season will be cause for concern. With Stevan Jovetic getting a full 90 minutes under his belt in the Community Shield last weekend, Manuel Pellegrini will hope the impish Montenegrin can feature a lot more prominently. Elsewhere, the arrivals of both Frank Lampard and goalkeeper Willy Caballero are intriguing. The former adds plenty of experience and in-game intelligence to the City ranks, albeit temporarily before his move to MLS side New York City FC. The latter has his mind set on becoming the club’s first-choice goalkeeper and with Joe Hart having endured some criticisms over the last 18 months, it could be a story worth following.
At Anfield meanwhile, the loss of Luis Suarez is sure to be felt though Brendan Rodgers has put his faith in a number of things: a group mentality, tactical flexibility and the development of some key young players.
By making a litany of new signings, the Liverpool boss is hoping the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Adam Lallana chipped in with nine goals for Southampton last season while Rickie Lambert scored 13. If they can get over twenty between them this time, Rodgers will be pleased. With Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel both having racked up impressive tallies last term, it’s difficult to see how that will be replicated this season so Liverpool will have to try and find an increase in contributions from elsewhere.
In Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho, the club has two incredibly exciting young prospects. The English international won many admiring glances last season while his stock rose considerably after his World Cup performances in Brazil. The Brazilian has previously struggled for consistency, perhaps owing to Rodgers tactical tweaks. The 22-year-old much prefers to play centrally, occupying the space between the lines – as he did to perfection in last weekend’s friendly against Borussia Dortmund. But, should Rodgers decide on a 4-3-3 formation, it’s difficult to know how Daniel Sturridge, Sterling, Lallana and Coutinho can all effectively be accommodated. A 4-2-3-1 appears a safer bet though Rodgers likes nothing more than repeatedly tinkering with his tactics board so don’t be surprised to see constant changes on that front.
Many feel Manchester United will find a way back into the top-four and they might be right. Louis van Gaal's arrival has already sparked a surge in confidence and belief – two elements that never really existed under David Moyes. There's an exciting new formation to try out (3-4-3) which promises to bring the best out of a talented group of attacking players who, thankfully, will be played in their desired positions in the new system. But, there are problems. Namely recruitment.
The day before the new season starts and van Gaal has been hit with an injury crisis. Seven first-choice players are ruled out and, due to a lack of sufficient transfer activity in the last few weeks, he could be forced to hand two youngsters their competitive debuts against Swansea. The Dutchman needs reinforcements and fast. The club is still chasing three different targets – two defenders and a midfielder, but with time running out, United find themselves in an eerily similar situation to last August when a deadline-day dash resulted in abject failure: moves for Ander Herrera and Fabio Coentrao collapsed while the club paid over-the-odds for Marouane Fellaini – a signing that subsequently came to define the entire Moyes era.
Van Gaal has already dominated the United training ground and dressing room - his powerful presence, arrogance and background has ensured the players know exactly what he wants and when he wants it. There will be no confusion or indecision. And ultimately, given the fallout from the previous regime, no excuses either.
After a fifth-place finish last season, Roberto Martinez will be optimistic that his Everton side can offer up something similar this time around. Having spent big to land Romelu Lukaku on a permanent deal, with the national treasure Ross Barkley having signed a new deal, with a central midfielder as intelligent and sharp as James McCarthy, with an explosive and widely-coveted fullback in Seamus Coleman and with a relatively steady foundation at the back, there's a refreshing openness to the side – perhaps an extension of the manager's joie de vivre style. Everton's key players are in their early twenties and have been afforded a chance under Martinez to both blossom and make mistakes in equal measure. There's a healthy romanticism to that and the manager should be applauded for having overseen it.
At the opposite end of the table, it's difficult to see Aston Villa's project (Roy Keane serving as an assistant to under-fire Paul Lambert) proving anything other than a disaster. With the club struggling to make signings (Joe Cole and Kieron Richardson don't inspire much confidence) and the off-field turmoil (former Cleveland Browns majority owner Randy Lerner desperately trying to sell but struggling to find a buyer), it doesn't look good. Should they find the going tough in the opening weeks, expect Lambert to go, Keane to take over and the club to helter-skelter its way towards relegation. Or perhaps the newly-unemployed Tony Pulis (somehow rescuing Crystal Palace from a doomed odyssey last season and pushing them to an eventual 11th place, walking out this week after clashing with owner Steve Parish), can take the helm and guide another ship to the safety of dry land.
So many permutations. So many angles. So many stories. So good to have it back.