Why Manchester United should be Premier League 2017/18 title favourites
At the beginning of last season, calling who would be Premier League winners was a difficult task. It was the first season that the league could lay claim to possessing not only the world’s best players, but the world’s finest and most in demand managers.
One year later, and predicting remains equally challenging. Gone have the days of a clear top four hegemony, or a rampaging Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United team destined for the title. For the second year in a row, you could make valid lines of argument for one of United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, or Liverpool making a run for the title, while in a post title-winning Leicester age, it might even be naïve to write off Everton.
But unlike last year, the 2017/18 season holds greater significance because of the pressure it lays on the league’s ‘Hollywood’ managers. Guardiola, Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino, Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp all hold themselves to standards that will be difficult to maintain in such a competitive field, and with two of those aforementioned six having to finish outside the top four, it would be surprising to see all of them spat out of the otherside of this season unscathed.
But in and among the pre-season pandemonium, fifth placed Manchester United should be the team who get your backing. Here’s why.
As a simple line of argument, Mourinho has won the domestic title in his second season at every club he has ever been at. True, this doesn’t really prove anything in the context of such a highly competitive league, but it does prove that his team’s improve in his second year of management. This has been especially relevant in his tenures at Madrid and his second spell at Chelsea, where his ideology clearly began to yield greater performances after a year of establishing his style and methods.
When he joined United last year, he was explicit in his need for time for results to be seen.
‘My teams are different to Mr Van Gaal, and it is a difficult situation to change the dynamics. It would be easier for me to have 20 new players and start from zero. For two years, they had some principles of play that are not mine – clearly, they are not’.
With a year of Mourinho-ism now embedded into Old Trafford, history would clearly suggest that United will be a stronger force than they were last year.
When reviewing the 2016/17 season, it’s clear where improvements can be made. United were tepid at Old Trafford last season, dropping 14 points in low scoring draws to the likes of Stoke (1-1), Burnley (0-0), West Ham (1-1), Hull (0-0), Bournemouth (1-1), West Brom (1-1), Swansea (1-1), an uncharacteristic turn of form for both club and manager. Make note, Mourinho holds one of the finest home league records in managerial history (he previously went nine years without losing at home, or 151 games between 2002-2011) and United will surely progress here.
Such progression will of course be buttressed by the arrival of the slightly under-appreciated Romelu Lukaku, who boasts excellent Premier League experience, a deadly finish in front of goal, and an ever improving touch that will help him bring the rampaging Paul Pogba into play. Pogba is due a big season, and will be given a freer reign to push forward with Nemanja Matic anchoring in behind. Those three just about sum up Mourinho’s approach; raw power, physicality, and height. It’s hard to see club’s coping with the power that they now posses.
The further underlying trend to take note of is how Mourinho has started title winning seasons. In all three successes with Chelsea, his sides have started extremely quickly, leading the chase and building up a big enough lead to allow a late season slow down. Correspondingly, United’s 17/18 fixture list supports this trend immensely, with a generous opening 10 games.
Obviously, United will need to rely on one of their rivals not excelling to achieve this, and that’s where the shortcomings of Man City become pertinent. Guardiola is unquestionably a very real threat, but there’s a lack of evidence to suggest he’s truly addressed the factors that prevented City from winning the title last season.
While City showed flashes of brilliance last year, they were also brittle in defence, notably losing 4-2 at Leicester having been 4-0 down. Claudio Bravo’s inability to shot stop and John Stones’ tendency to make crucial mistakes meant the side was overly ‘top heavy’, with Nicolas Otamendi doing little to mitigate for the ageing full backs flanking them.
True, Guardiola has invested in his full backs and a goalkeeper, but questions remain about who should anchor their defence, especially with the ongoing tentativeness of Vincent Kompany’s fitness, which seems to convince the club not to invest in a world class, long term replacement. Kompany has managed just 25 appearances in the last two seasons.
Tactically, City’s weakness last year was their inability to compete against the long ball, and the ‘second ball’. As Kevin De Bruyne explained:
‘Where Pep is most surprised is that there are still a lot of teams playing with long balls. Sometimes he thinks the team will try to play football, because they do that against other teams, but if it is against us they change their way of playing. I think that sometimes he must be annoyed by it. He puts so much time and energy in looking for things, where spaces might be, but then he tells us that the opponent will surely play long ball’.
Guardiola’s unwavering commitment to technical football has ultimately encouraged teams to play Route One against him. Commenting on it himself, Guardiola was candid in his analysis:
‘The football is more unpredictable here. I only needed to see one game to understand English football, Swansea 5-4 against Crystal Palace. Nine goals, eight from set pieces. This is English football, and I have to adapt’.
Despite Guardiola’s formidable managerial record, there is little evidence to suggest he’s ever had to truly assemble a new defence. At Barcelona he was gifted a Carlos Puyol – Gerard Pique centre back partnership and at Bayern, the treble winning Phillipe Lahm, Jermone Boateng, Dante and David Alaba were handed to him.
Tactically, it will be interesting to see how Guardiola sets up. The Spaniard his flirted with a three man defence at times, and even played his full backs as central midfielders in their opening run last year.While City are without doubt the strongest team going forward in the league, whether they will find a coherent balance between technically adept attacking and rugged, Premier League defending will be the challenge that will define their season. A failure to defensively resolve, an issue that doesn’t appear to have been addressed this summer, will see them fall short of the title.
Guardiola started perfectly last season by winning his first ten games in all competitions, and it’s not unreasonable to think that both Manchester clubs will make early dashes for the title.
Tottenham remain the true wildcard in the pack.
Despite a quiet summer, livened up by Danny Rose saying some truly idiotic things, Daniel Levy and Pochettino’s approach has been refreshingly sensible. Aware that their starting XI can only be improved by a major signing for an overly inflated fee, they’ve held back, occasionally flirting with the idea of signing Ross Barkley.
Spurs would surely be more favoured for the title were they not moving to Wembley, a stadium they’ve won twice at in their last 10. Considering they were unbeaten at White Hart Lane season, winning 17 of 19 and picking up 53 of their 86 points, a drop in home form would surely see them fall short. The thought of Arsenal coming to Wembley for the North London derby, a stadium the Gunners have triumphed at in their last eight attempts, doesn’t quite hold as much home tenacity as a game at the Lane.
If quantitative statistical analysis is to be taken seriously, one model suggests that Tottenham should in fact be outright favourites. Considering that this approach saw the FT predict last year’s table with astonishing accuracy, perhaps this is worth taking seriously. That said, whether such an analysis can quantify playing at Wembley is unlikely.
The team coming off the worst pre-season is Chelsea.
Antonio Conte finds himself in overly-public political scrap with the Chelsea board, first refusing to extend his contract when he signed an improved deal recently, and then openly admitting that he had absolutely no intention of selling Matic to United.
“Matic knows very well what I think about him — the importance for me about this player, who is a really good player, a top player, very important for our team,” he said. “But sometimes you must accept this crazy transfer market, and sometimes you must accept different decisions. But he is a great loss for us.”
It is baffling that Chelsea have decided to sell such an important player to one of their biggest rivals, and puts added pressure on the incoming Tiemoué Bakayoko, a player Conte intended on slowly inducting into the league.
Conte’s political predicament is endemic of the club’s internal framework. In the Abramovic era, Chelsea have become a club led as two independent entities; the first, Conte’s first team and on pitch matters; the second, a separate ‘trading arm’ that buys, sells and largely loans players at an alarming rate. Clearly Conte has come to odds with this, as the likes of Cuardrado, Atsu, Begovic, Solanke, Traore, Ake, Abraham, Loftus-Cheek, Van Ginkel, and Zouma have all left this season with only Caballero, Rudiger, Bakayoko and Morata having joined.
There also remains an odd nervousness to embrace youth, and yet again the Chelsea board have decided to invest rather than attempt to reap the rewards of a youth team that has won the last four youth FA Cups. Ultimately, the trading arms purpose appears to be to help the club navigate the tribulations of Financial Fair Play, as opposed to provide nascent talent for the first team.
This is all at a time when the club is about to start competing in Europe, adding significant strain to a squad that excelled from a quieter fixture list last season. Part of our rationale this time last year for backing Chelsea was in part based around this; it’s been a trend for several years now; Liverpool in 13/14 (second) and Leicester 15/16 (first) also benefitted immeasurably having a week to prepare for Premier League games. This time, with five Premier League teams qualified for the Champions League, and Arsenal taking on the ever-exhausting Europa League, no side will enjoy that advantage.
With further questions of Conte’s commitment to the club becoming ever louder, notably in light of his history of leaving clubs when he likes, as well as overly dramatic fallout with Diego Costa, there’s a cloud of doubt lingering over Stamford Bridge as the club looks to defend its crown. Add to the fact that Conte’s groundbreaking 3-4-2-1 formation is less effective as teams mimic the formation against him, and this may well actually be the Italian’s ‘most difficult’ season of his career.
The club’s previous title defence will still lie fresh in memory; a side hasn’t retained the title since Manchester United in 2009; their squad is too small to compete on multiple fronts: backing them this season would be shortsighted.
The remainders; Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton, can all call on reasons to be optimistic heading into the year, but don’t look quite as strong as the Manchester front and Tottenham.
Everton have had a bullish window, cashing in on the £75m sale of Lukaku, moving swiftly for a collection of promising players. However, despite the auspicious nature of the club’s outlook, notably supported by a new owner who looks ready to spend, the 2017/18 is more likely a transition season as the club looks to evolve.
Liverpool are in good hands under the charismatic Klopp, but also have done little to convince of real progress from last season. They were outstanding against their title rivals but like United, lacked a cutting edge against bottom half sides. Home defeats to Swansea, and Crystal Palace, as well as away losses at Hull, Bourmenouth, Burnley and Leicester nearly cost them a place in the top four. Like Chelsea, they will also have to re-adapt to the rigours of European football.
Liverpool and Chelsea’s qualification for the Champions League will certainly benefit Arsenal, who have done well to hold on to Alexis Sanchez while importing Lacazette from Lyon. How Wenger plays the Europa League may define how well they perform in the Premier League and there will surely be a temptation to focus solely on the league.
As always, there remains a hollow sense of optimism that this might finally be Arsenal’s year, that Sanchez, Ozil and Lacazette will fire them to the title, that Santi Cazorla may come back from injury, in this new look 3-4-2-1 that has looked encouraging. But as always it’s hard to look beyond the inevitable narrative of a late season dip and a fresh bout of heavy ‘Wenger-out’ rhetoric. Could 2017/18 instead be the year of ‘Wexit’?
United, City, Tottenham and Chelsea are the bookies top four in advance, with Guardiola, for the second year in a row, being the outright favourite. If pre-season is anything to go by though, Mourinho will pip Guardiola to the title, Tottenham will dangerously flirt with the title and then slip away, while Chelsea will find themselves in a battle for fourth against Liverpool and Arsenal.
It’s going to be an absolute cracker.