Man United and Arsenal: This summer’s transfer winners and losers
Manchester United have conducted the most efficient business – but Chelsea remain the team to catch, writes Paul McNamara
There is the best part of a fortnight still to elapse before the 2015-16 Premier League season kicks off, yet the jostling for position is already well under way.
Each of the four clubs currently accepted as the division’s major forces have been seeking to refresh their respective squads; Chelsea with the aim of retaining their hold on top spot, the rest in an attempt to overhaul Jose Mourinho’s defending champions.
It isn’t only in their player dealing that the leading managers have been seeking to gain a vital early edge. Away from home on pre-season tours, and yet to be weighed down by the pressure that becomes all-consuming when points are at stake, Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Louis van Gaal and even the usually taciturn Manuel Pellegrini have been looser-lipped than is customarily the case.
Mourinho has, predictably, adopted the role of chief-provocateur, claiming, somewhat disingenuously, that a few of his rivals are trying to ‘buy the title’. The objects of the 52 year-old’s barb are commonly thought to be Manchester United and Liverpool.
With respect to the Merseyside outfit, any hopes they might possess of challenging for a first English championship in 26 years would be optimistic, in the extreme. The additions of Roberto Firmino, Christian Benteke and Danny Ings will surely go some way to rectifying last term’s relative Anfield goal-dearth. Nathaniel Clyne, meanwhile, will give Brendan Rodgers a first-rate option at right-back for the first time since the Northern Irishman took charge at Liverpool three years ago. Despite all the summer activity at the home of the 18-time champions, though, the remainder of their shaky backline remains untouched.
Firmino, unlike another Reds’ recruit, the reliable James Milner, is an unknown quantity on these shores, but even if the Brazilian justifies his £29m price tag, Rodgers’ squad is just light on the quality that would be needed to force itself back into a Champions League spot – never mind to launch any assault on Chelsea’s crown. Liverpool haven’t been helped in their endeavours to reclaim ground on the top-four, regardless of the negative publicity that clouded the transfer, by losing Raheem Sterling to Manchester City.
It is only 12 months ago that Sterling was England’s outstanding performer in their opening match at the World Cup finals. The young winger’s fearless display, as England went down 2-1 to Italy, was viewed as further confirmation of his status as this country’s most exciting talent. All of Sterling’s ability, his capacity to be a game-changer, hasn’t been washed away because he decided to leave Liverpool.
Pellegrini has declared that he expects his new £49m signing to ‘improve a lot,’ while also expressing delight at securing the purchase of another promising Englishman, Fabian Delph, who, at 25, is poised to spend the peak years of his career in a City shirt. In common with Sterling’s former club, however, the 2014 champions are yet to do anything to address their shortcomings in defence.
City’s Chilean boss is bullish about his side’s chances of being ‘competitive’ on both domestic and European fronts this term, after last season’s barren return. In order for his forecast to prove correct, though, one suspects that Pellegrini has to achieve his recently stated aim of bringing in ‘an important player to improve our squad,’ – assuming that player is the defender they are crying out for.
It is slightly odd, then, given the paucity of high calibre centre-halves at The Etihad – a predicament that last season began to adversely affect Vincent Kompany, the one stellar defender in the City ranks – and the similar deficiencies in that department at both United and Arsenal ,that it is Chelsea who are actively chasing a central defender.
Despite already being able to call on two of John Terry, Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma to pair-up in the middle of his defence, Mourinho seems fixed on bolstering his back-four further with the acquisition of John Stones. The ex-Porto manager has so far restricted himself in the close-season to bringing in goalkeeper Asmir Begovic to replace the departed Petr Cech, and plugging the gap left by Didier Drogba’s exit with the loan purchase of Radamel Falcao, whose success at Stamford Bridge will depend on whether the Colombian can rediscover the form that made him a sensational frontman for Porto and Atletico Madrid, or if he continues to replicate the lost soul who spent the last campaign at Old Trafford.
If Mourinho does spend the money required to wrest Stones from Everton’s clutches then – as well as making a nonsense of his take on other clubs’ financial outlays – he will be strengthening a team, and a squad, that already looks to be the Premier League’s strongest.
It is worth noting that even the savvy Portuguese hasn’t had a blemish-free record in the market since his 2013 return to the Bridge. While Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa were all integral to last year’s title success, the less celebrated trio of Mohamed Salah, Filipe Luis and Juan Cuadrado, bought for a combined £50m by Mourinho, have made no impact in west London, whatsoever.
There is no guarantee, then, that the players Van Gaal has taken to Manchester United across the last couple of months will contribute to an improvement on last term’s fourth-place finish. Notwithstanding that caveat, the Dutchman’s capture of midfield duo Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin should provide a substantial upgrade on the Red Devils’ resources in that area of the park.
Van Gaal has set about his first full summer’s dealing in Manchester with a degree of precision; targeting players to fill berths where his team were so plainly lacking throughout the 63 year-old’s first-campaign at the United helm. Right-back Matteo Darmian, burgeoning attacking talent Memphis Depay, and Argentine international goalkeeper Sergio Romero are all more likely to be hits than misses following their moves to England.
Reflecting on United’s incomings this week, Van Gaal indicated that his team now has a ‘better balance,’ but still requires ‘more creativity’. That attribute, it appears, is likely come in the form of Pedro Rodriguez. The Barcelona flyer would represent another exciting addition, but even if the wilder rumours linking Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo with the club contain any truth, United cannot end their latest bout of spending without adding a worldly wise centre-back to their number.
The Old Trafford outfit, Manchester City and Arsenal have all avoided joining any potential auction for Stones, possibly because each of those clubs need a seasoned campaigner, who will hit the ground running, to assume centre-half responsibilities for their respective teams.
Wenger, out of the men in charge of the ‘big-four’, has done most to bolster his rearguard, with his purchase of Cech. In reality, however, he was starting from furthest back on the grid in that respect. The Frenchman’s side are closer to a genuine title tilt than they have been for a decade. Yet, the 65 year-old will risk all the optimism fuelled by last season’s strong finish ebbing away, if he sits idle – while others around him fortify their ranks.
There is a month until this current transfer window shuts, so any overarching judgement on the summer trading of the Premier League’s foremost clubs would be premature. Assessed on their work thus far, though, Van Gaal has conducted the most efficient business – but Chelsea remain the team to catch.