Alex Ferguson’s strongest asset was not his tactical superiority over his peers but it was his winning mentality. Any team fielded by him, went on to the pitch expecting and playing for a win. With the arrival of David Moyes – a manager generally content with a 6th place finish – they lost that winning mentality and the theatre of dreams was no longer the fortress it used to be and instead became a place where premier league teams’ dreams come true. To make matters even worse, he let all the experienced players that had the Fergie mentality in them go – Rio, Vidic and Evra were all players who should have stayed longer to instil the winning mentality in the now very young team. It suddenly became a team devoid of leaders and winners both in the dugout and on the pitch. This season it couldn’t have been more different and the early signs are pointing to Manchester United as the only possible winner of the Premier League title.
The Winners and Leaders
The Manchester hierarchy brought in a serial winner in Jose Mourinho. His first order of business was to strengthen the glaring weaknesses in the team by bringing in more winners – Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimovic and Pogba. Mkhitaryan has 7 league titles to his name, was Bundesliga’s assist leader last season and was also voted by his peers as the Players’ Player of the Season. The giant Swede has even more impressive stats – in his last 13 seasons, Ibrahimovic has only lost the league title once when AC Milan finished a very disappointing second behind champions Juventus. Finally, Mourinho secured the services of Pogba – the most expensive player in the history of the game. Pogba is another serial winner signed by Mourinho. He was an integral part of the Juventus teams that romped to four straight Serie A titles in a row. His only disappointing senior season was his first and only season with United’s first team when they finished behind Manchester City on goal difference in 2011-2012.
The Invisible Signings
In addition to strengthening his squad with four new players, the existing Manchester United squad gives Mourinho four further “invisible signings”. He inherited a squad with arguably the world’s best goalkeeper but one that has a return to his hometown Madrid on his mind. David de Gea announced that Mourinho has convinced him to snub any advancement from Real Madrid and instead stay in the red half of Manchester to work under the Portuguese manager. During his last Chelsea tenure, Mourinho was really keen on prising Luke Shaw and Wayne Rooney away from Southampton and Manchester United, respectively. He was priced out of both signings with United paying over the odds for Shaw and offering Rooney a £300k weekly salary to keep him in Manchester. If anyone is to restore Shaw’s confidence after his horrific injury and rejuvenate the United captain, it is Mourinho. The last of the invisible signings is a rather surprising one. Under fire since joining Manchester and has been the scapegoat of LVG’s last dismal season, Marouane Fellaini completes the list. Many people forget that the Portuguese actively tried to sign the Belgian for Real Madrid. Most likely going to be used as a utility player, Fellaini has one final chance to prove that he is more than just a David Moyes flop.
The Main Rivals
We are labelling the season’s top four as the “Northwest and a Londoner”. The most likely to spoil the Mourinho party are United’s biggest rivals, Liverpool and Manchester City. The primary contender is the blue half of Manchester. The appointment of Pep Guardiola is a strong signal of intent from the Manchester City board. The Spanish manager followed that by investing in some exciting signings with winger Sane, striker Gabriel Jesus, midfielder Ilkay Gundogan and defender John Stones all joining the citizen ranks. Pep’s main struggle will be his Premier League on-boarding. At Barcelona and Bayern he was able to rest his key players against weaker teams and thus ensured that they always remained fresh – In the Premier League, Guardiola will soon realise that even against lowly ranked Hull or struggling Sunderland it will always be a stern test requiring most of his stars’ best efforts.
In Merseyside, the Klop project is still in its infancy and would be pre mature to predict a title for Liverpool this season but a top four finish is a realistic ambition for Liverpool fans. If pre season is anything to judge by, then the acquisition of Mane is looking likely to be the most exciting signing of the season. Ragnar Klavan is also potentially the assured defender that can partner Lovren and bring out the best in the Croatian.
Down in London, the challenge is even greater. At Chelsea, Conte will need some time to get used to the challenges of the Premier League. The team looks like a goal fest and a resemblance of Brazil of the 1950s. They will need to outscore their opponents to win matches unless Conte has plans to plug the fragile and potentially leaky defence.
The North Londoners
Up to North London, where rivals Spurs and Arsenal battle it out for bragging rights and a place in the top four. Spurs, one of the surprise packages of last season have not strengthened their squad enough to match the spending of the other top four hopefuls. Wanyama and Jansen will prove to be very useful and effective signings but with Champions League football this season, expect it to take its toll on the players.
On the other hand, top four specialists Arsenal will face their biggest challenge to compete in Europe’s elite competition next season. Their manager’s stubbornness remains their biggest weakness and his inability to sign players to plug the holes in his team will continue to baffle football fans around the world. Wenger went out and purchased a midfield player when his team has an already overcrowded midfield. Letting go of a chance to sign Ashley Williams, a proven premier league defender and the leader and captain of the Welsh team, is perhaps the biggest mistake of his managerial career. His team is lacking in both leaders and defenders and Ashley Williams ticks both boxes. Finally, anyone watching the football in the Rio Olympics – both men and women’s football – would have noticed that Alex Morgan, the USA women team’s striker would have been a far better addition the Arsenal strike force than Japanese attacker Takuma Asano.
Mourinho has been there and done that, he is familiar with the Premier League and already has three winners’ medals in his trophy cabinet from his two stints at Chelsea. In any case, this season is shaping up to be the most exciting, hard fought season in recent memory and is poised to signal the end of Arsenal’s consecutive Champions League appearances and the rise of the Northwest.