Season 2014-15 – the State of Play

Season 2014-15 – the State of Play
August 8, 2014 Chris Rowland

By Mark Cohen (TTT Subscriber Maradoo).

With the World Cup now a history lesson and the league season almost upon us, it is prescient to begin an analysis of our rivals for the season. Whilst the composition of the teams’ squads is certain to change, the expectation around each team is only likely to increase as the season approaches (the nature of support – hope springs eternal and all that).

Who will win? Can we challenge? Will Sterling be the new Suarez and will Sturridge continue to prove himself one of the best strikers in world football? Will Markovic hit the ground running and will Brendan Rodgers prove last season was not a flash in the pan?

With all that in mind, it is the scope of this piece to explore where our rivals are in relation to last season and also to each other. It is also the remit of this article to give some nuance to the nature of a league season, and to also add to the general debate of how well Liverpool will perform.

First off, 13/14 is a distant memory. It is important for us to reset our expectations in line with this season’s reality and not use last season and its many black swan events to cloud our vision for this year. These events included new managers for City, Chelsea and Everton and also a shift in transfer strategy for Arsenal as well as a massive spree for Spurs. It goes almost without saying that Manchester United’s decision of manager was akin to a heavyweight champion vacating his belt and refusing to fight. Moyes was in the starkest of contrasts to their previous Boss’s ‘never say die’ attitude that pervaded the entire English game for a quarter of a century. This was a radical departure for the league. Indeed, it created an entertainment vacuum which was there to be filled by the rest. Mourinho made an effort through ‘small horse’ idiocy, Liverpool made one through sheer excitement, but we all tried.

All of this created a state of flux not seen in a league season since the egalitarian days of the 70s and 80s, and to use a horse racing analogy, it more resembled a bunch of jockeys straight out of the gate, all jostling furiously for position than a normal league season, which, because it exists in a continuum, is more like the second furlong of a horse race, where positions are more settled and strategy is key.

Straight from the off, this season offers far more by way of consolidation than last season. Liverpool, City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton all have settled managers and styles, and we can also expect some sort of reversion to the norm from Manchester United (or can we? More on that fascinating subject later).

Meanwhile, Spurs have also changed their boss, but having done so on eight occasions in the last ten years, that is really more of the same anyway, so, as always, we can only expect the unexpected from them so I shall exclude them from meaningful debate in this article. Although, should they click quickly under Pochettino, they could find themselves in and around the top 4 for much of the season, bringing further pressure to bear on the top 5. I shall also exclude Everton from debate and this is not out of disrespect. My feeling is that the top 5 is so well funded and ultra-competitive this term that I cannot see the Blues challenging for a top 4 long spot past Christmas time.

I would reiterate however, that both of those teams have the personnel and management to make serious top 4 charges should they have a bit of luck and strong starts as they are both relatively pressure-free in terms of expectation for a Champions League berth and can thus play with a greater degree of enjoyment and freedom when compared to the bigger teams.

Now, before we get into each of the five teams in the newly dubbed Pentagon, I want to explore a concept that I have tried before but not been able to concisely explain: The nature of league competition.

As you might be aware from watching films like U571, a submarine not designed for a certain depth, will be crushed under the pressure of millions of gallons of water at that particular depth, with the pressure increasing exponentially with each extra yard it sinks. So when a sub goes below its designed depth, even by a matter of feet, the hapless occupants will soon start hearing the iron creaking and the rivets popping as the water outside the hull presses relentlessly against it. Finally, the hull will give way and implode spectacularly, killing all on board.

Now here is an analogy: consider all Premier League teams as submarines, and the league table as the ocean, with the expectation on those teams (being from owners, fans, players & management) as the water in the ocean. The best clubs are designed to whip along near the surface whilst the weaker ones are much slower and are designed to go much deeper. When a strong club, designed to whip along near the top, suffers an engine problem like loss of form/manager etc, it can no longer speed around the surface, and it starts to sink. Soon, it finds itself deeper than it ought to be, and the expectation in the form of water will start pressing against that hull, without mercy.

Consider Moyes’ United as a perfect example. A club geared to almost walking on the water found itself languishing around the squids, eels and Hull City Tigers of mid table and the expectation was crippling. Moyes had absolutely no chance once it became clear that his sub was not buoyant as fans’ expectations would not dip below the very surface of the ocean. They pressed on the hull, they flew planes around the stadium, they took to the blogosphere, and they finally caused Moyes’ head to implode.

The final point of this analogy is the most important, as it brings our subs out of the water and into the stadiums. The nature of the league vs the nature of the ocean differs in one key aspect in our thought experiment, and that is that, whilst many subs can float at the surface, due to the vastness of the ocean, the league allows only one club per depth.

To now collapse the analogy: only one team may occupy each position or depth in the league, 1 through 20. It is impossible for two teams to end first, and it is impossible for six teams to end in the top four. This seems obvious, but my entire methodology of prediction and assessment is based on this truism.

If we split the league into the big boys and the rest, we see a clearly defined top five, with Everton and Spurs acting as the link clubs in 6-7 and the rest of the league from positions 8-20. Now, the ramifications of the submarine analogy and the fact that only one team can occupy each league position means that regardless of how superb each squad is, and how strong their depth is and how mercurial their wingers are etc, at least one of the five Pentagon members are going to drastically miss their targets this season, maybe more. This is a mathematical certainty.

Also consider that for Arsenal, who have finished in 4th or better for 17 consecutive years, even that achievement would be a failure to meet expectations. With their spending, they are now structured to be closer than ever to the surface too, so a poor start to the season might bring Wenger to boil. For Chelsea and City, 4th would probably mean sackings. Those two and United are designed to float on or near the surface. If they deviate from this, even slightly, the pressure on their hulls become untenable within a matter of games. Liverpool are at a distinct advantage due to us still being underrated, probably because we have only had one good season and the expectation is for us to revert to top 4 struggles this term.

The oddest part of this league truism, is that, when we consider the teams in isolation, each one, from City in 1st to United in 7th last season, can stake their claims for the league title, let alone the top four. However, when we view these teams against one another i.e. the league in its entirety, it becomes clear that some’s claims are empirically better than others.

The issues is that regardless of how strong their top four or title claims actually are, these big boys’ expectations remain sky high and require a number of seasons of poor performance (like Liverpool 2010-13) to alter. Thus, by viewing the top five (plus Everton & Spurs) in context, we are better able to guesstimate who might do well and who will be set for the chopping block.

Manchester United – Club’s Expectation, 1st to 4th, but you can bet that 4th wouldn’t be greeted with great enthusiasm either.

Van Gaal’s arrival has re-established Manchester United’s place at the top order, with Moyes as a mere temporary blip. This may come to pass, but there are a few issues to be discussed first.

Firstly, if RedCafe and the rest of the fawning media is to be believed, what occurred with Moyes was nothing but an aberration of nature. The general feeling on that forum is that Van Gaal’s arrival signals not a rebirth for the club, but a continuation of the Ferguson era of success. It is also not lost on the Red Devils’ brains trust that they are not playing in Europe this year, and, following on from Liverpool’s use of that particular advantage, the expectation of the Red Devils is that they too, will go from 7th to a title challenge.

Whilst this is a possibility, the situation that existed last year is markedly different to this season:

Where Liverpool had Rodgers’ in his second season, Manchester United will take time to settle under the new man.

Their rivals are stronger and more settled, not like last season’s very fluctuating start.

Liverpool’s rise was jet fuelled by one of the top three players in the world in the form of his life.

Liverpool’s effort was not the norm, indeed it was a total shock for a team ending 7th to challenge the following season. There is a fundamental lack of belief in a squad that has just finished 7th, as we can attest. This is not to say they ‘can’t’ challenge, more that it is not simply a case of rubbing vanishing cream over last season’s dire performances.

Louis Van Gaal, whilst on a different planet to Moyes, is an unknown quantity in English football, and it is probably fair to say that he is entering a league that is at its most competitive for over twenty five years. Simply having an attacking ethos no longer sets you apart in this division as Arsenal, City and Liverpool all possess such things, whilst coaching World Cup teams is quite far removed from the daily grind of league results too.

Such is Van Gaal’s proven quality, the Red Devils have every right to be excited especially when considering Moyes last season, but it is important to remember that Van Gaal has had notable failures at top clubs before and is also quite combustible at times. It was indeed rather curious to witness him having a right pop at the commercial side of United’s business twice in the last week alone, whilst publically castigating a newly signed teenage defender also strikes me as pandering to the crowds by Van Gaal to show ‘what a stern taskmaster’ he is.

I would also suggest that we wait and see how his attacking ethos functions, as there appears to be a new mantra taking shape in the Premier League, led by City and Liverpool, which involves a greater proportion of attack over defence than has previously been seen before in the division at least since the 50s and early 60s probably. So I don’t know if Van Gaal is as adaptable as he will need to be to have success in this division.

It is also clear judging from United’s last four transfers that they are having a problem procuring talent for market value. This creates an interesting conundrum  – they are attempting a ‘reload’ not a full reboot like Liverpool did, but the reload relies on the purchasing of a few top players to reinvigorate a tired squad. Now, Shaw may turn out to be the next Bale, but he is only 18 and already cost United three times what Spurs paid for Bale from Southampton, and Herrera looks a strong player, but not really for 30m either. United are so strong financially that it seems they can continue ad nauseam until they get it right. This, along with the financial might of the rest of the ‘big boys’ will be a serious challenge for us to overcome.

So United’s season will hinge on the quick absorption of their new players and style. This is much easier said than done, especially when factoring in the fact that there is no room for error. In the old days, a dire Liverpool could finish 4th under Houllier and win the Champions League the following season, but now wretched seasons are rewarded with a finishing place lower than 4th usually and with it – no Champions League football.

The wider issue surrounding all of this is that now that the fans have the Dutch Ferguson in charge, there is absolutely no need to tolerate more struggles this season. United will succeed and succeed big, is the expectation from the Red Devils faithful. Van Gaal better hope he gets the U.S.S. Crimson Lucifer whipping about the surface pretty quickly, or there will be a second implosion.

Manchester United are attempting the mother of all reloads. They have seen that in Moyes they had appointed a dour old scavenger who had never won a thing. So they went for the exact opposite: a fierce, charismatic bulldog who has won it all. Maybe more subtlety was needed. Maybe an entirely fresh approach over the dying methodology of the ‘tyrant boss’ was required.  It doesn’t matter, Van Gaal will show all of us his balls, literally and figuratively.

Looking at United’s rather soft opening five fixtures, there is a very definite hum of anticipation from supporters. I can tell you, this is a double-edged sword. A good start will not be seen as a portent for great things, until the big result that eluded Moyes is achieved, while a bad start will actually be catastrophic, as these are games they are expected to win.

My expectation for them is a drastically improved season, even perhaps a title challenge, should Van Gaal manage to quickly settle his combinations and strategies. If he doesn’t, it will make last season under Moyes seem a gentle stroll.

Manchester City – club expectation 1st or 2nd with strong Champions League showing

Anthony Stanley’s excellent article asserts that only City are ‘safe’ from the spectre of an underachieving season, but I have to say, I disagree.

I get the distinct feeling, that City are the only member of the pentagon who have more or less stood still this close season. In any event, conventional wisdom suggests they will be first or second this season, but I am really not sure.

The fact they don’t need to spend another 100m due to already possessing a strong squad is not lost on me either, it’s more that there is a general feeling of ‘league apathy’ around the club. Perhaps there is a general complacency that they have arrived now and maybe they do feel ensconced in the top 4?

Maybe winning it like this does take its toll? City’s win last year reminded me of when Stewart Cink pipped crowd favourite Tom Watson at the British Open in 2009. City were worthy winners, no doubt, but there was a general feeling that largesse played a massive part.

Alex Ferguson used to refresh his squad come title or not, and this constant pursuit of perfection supplied the fuel to existing squad members to stop them from resting on their laurels. City have not really done that so far this season, and it could create staleness later.

This, coupled with my belief that when you consider the odd scenes that accompanied Manchester City’s second premiership last season, like swathes of empty seats just a few games from the end at the Etihad, you may get a sense that the Champions League will be the focus this term. Pellegrini proved his worth with an excellent title win, but he will know that more will be required in terms of performances on the continent in 14/15, especially with owners who are keen to fast-track City’s super club status before FFP starts to take a serious toll.

This is not scientific by any means, but I also foresee greater efforts been expended by City’s top players like Toure and Aguero in the hunt for European supremacy. They have now been there, and done that, in terms of the league and this general shift in focus could be very detrimental to City’s hopes for a third title.

City also started quite slowly last season, and another shaky opening could actually see them struggling, what with United getting their house in order and Arsenal hell-bent on winning the thing too, not to mention Liverpool and Chelsea looking strong.

From a pressure perspective, City believe they are comfortable in the top 4, but as I have stressed repeatedly – at least one giant will miss out. They might be very surprised to learn it has a chance of being them! The pressure will be ratcheted up to extreme levels on Pellegrini should he find himself any lower than third for prolonged period during the season. Interestingly, things have gone so swimmingly for him so far, that he could be forgiven for believing his job is actually safe.

It isn’t and Pellegrini will do well to realise that there is no room for error in the Premier League. He may not realise it, such is his nascent, one-season knowledge of the inner workings of a Premier League season, but last season was highly unusual for many reasons already discussed. Pellegrini will probably have afforded himself a pat on the back for a job well done, and he might believe that this Premier League thing is actually easier than it looks.

He will find out that is not the case this season.

Arsenal – Club’s expectation 1st to 3rd

Arsenal are spending money. They did last year with the underwhelming Ozil, and they will do so again this year. This is the central tenet to the Gunners’ expectations.

For so long, Arsene Wenger instituted a tight-pursed strategy which he claimed was down to the club’s stadium funding. Really though, this frugal strategy was pursuant to his own aims of building the perfect football team from conception through gestation through literal birth and then onto a training pitch where Wenger could mould them into footballers. It didn’t work and it infuriated the fan base to the point where they held a ticker tape parade in self-mocking for the celebration of the winning of the newest edition to the ‘Mickey Mouse Cup Club’ – the FA Cup.

Wenger then posited that the spending largesse of last season was due to the newly found financial might of Arsenal. In reality it was because he has realised that his system possessed a fatal flaw – all the inexperienced technique in the world cannot fully function without proper experience on the field to guide and nurture it – a lesson Liverpool will do well to heed this season too by the way. Wenger’s spending last season owed much more to self-preservation than anything else, and Arsenal’s relative collapse to 4th has left him feeling the heat this season.

However, he has a serious team this term, and will surely be only a smattering of points away from the title come May, provided that, for the first time in a decade, Arsenal do not suffer decimating injuries.

An interesting point to note is that there is a very clear narrative forming from all quarters this season about Arsenal, and it is in stark contrast to Liverpool. Arsenal have now been widely touted as serious Premier League contenders. This is more so than in previous seasons too, and is mainly due to the perception that they have seriously strengthened so far this year. This perception has been almost entirely fuelled by the signing of just one player, Sanchez, although Khedira’s arrival would add fuel to that particular bonfire.

Contrast this to Liverpool, who have sold one player and are being largely written off as a fluke.

Now, I don’t doubt Arsenal’s ability to challenge this season, and that Sanchez is one hell of a player, but to come back to my opening theme – only one team can win the league. Arsenal fans may have the expectation that they have waited long enough and are thus due their turn, but the reality is that Premier League titles are unfortunately not awarded on a turn-based system.

To win the league, Arsenal are going to have to be superior over 38 games to us, City, Chelsea & United.

The reality confronting Arsene is that, in spending large swathes of cash, he has removed his own self-made mitigating safety blanket. Should he fail to lift the title this season, the end must surely be nigh. Should Arsenal falter at any stage, and I mean even ‘struggling’ along in 4th would qualify as faltering, it is going to seem like Wenger’s submarine is quite literally down s#*t-trench without a paddle. Gooners’ expectations are sky high, and the Sanchez signing has sent it into the stratosphere.

On signing for the Frenchman, Sanchez said:  “I know this club has a manager that looks after his players and takes care of them as well. He wants to achieve great things in football and that helped me make the decision to sign for Arsenal.”

This is quite absurd. Did Sanchez’s minders at any time explain to the Chilean that Wenger is not some upstart manager ‘looking to achieve great things’, but has in fact been up to this Premier League lark for some seventeen years?

Not only that, but in doing his homework on Wenger, surely it must have been worrying to note that his best years are at least eight years ago (Champions League final defeat), and that last season alone, Arsenal shipped five or more goals three times in the league to supposed rivals?

In any event, Sanchez is actually a player Arsenal didn’t need, as their final third football hasn’t lacked for many years. I can see the Chilean, should he fail to start very brightly, turning into the noose that finally hangs Wenger.

Just don’t tell Gooners that though, because they have frankly had enough of listening to it.

Chelsea – Club Expectation 1st

I am sure that I am not alone in wishing Seabiscuit all the best for the oncoming season. Go on then… “Break a leg.”

Jose Mourinho arrived for his second coming at the Bridge with an unfettered reputation for winning. Let’s face it, love him or hate him, the man is an incredible winner so last season’s third place finish was probably something of a shock for the Blues, especially considering that they finished behind unfancied Liverpool whilst also serving up a turgid style of football that is quite unpalatable for the owner.

The battle lines have been drawn early by the man who has very little experience in failure (as he keenly reminded serial loser Wenger).

Last term, Mourinho spent hours reminding us how rubbish his £460m squad was (Transfermrkt), with particular reference to one time golden-boy Fernando Porridge. To be fair, he wasn’t wrong, and to rectify that this term he has plumped for the brawny talents of Diego Costa. I actually believe this to be a superb move by the Special One, and I can see the Spazilian being a huge success.

If he isn’t and Chelsea can’t get going, Mourinho will be fired.

It’s that simple really. In fact, it could be said that any other manager in world football would have been sacked by Abramovich last season, such is his penchant for crushing failure like a bug. Couple that with the Stamford Bridge faithful’s expectation for nothing less than the title, and you have a disaster waiting to happen.

Incredible though this may sound, Mourinho is within inches of the chopping block before a ball has been kicked. This is because, by his own admission and definition, success is so limited and so narrowly defined. He can win the title, and his job is secure, or he can play unbelievable football and win the Champions League, whilst coming runner up in the league, and his job is probably safe, but that’s it. Even if he delivers the Champions League, he might not survive.

Not a great place to be. The pressure must be unbearable, even for a man that thrives so strongly on it.

It is also going to be fascinating to see if his defensive style yields results in an increasingly attacking division. It can be argued that Chelsea threw the title away last season with defeats and draws at lowly opposition. That argument in my opinion, has already been proven false. In 08/09 Liverpool possessed the best squad and man for man, the strongest first eleven too. So on any given day, we could be backed to win, and we only lost twice all season, but failure to turn draws into wins due to teams parking the bus against us prevented us from winning the title.

I would actually put my house on Mourinho winning the league – if Chelsea played in the Serie A. That they don’t means that you can expect them to be thunderously difficult to beat, especially in the big games, but also surprisingly easy to contain – given their resources.

Mourinho, like Van Gaal, has also become a caricature of himself. He says things for effect, and he waffles on like Eric Cantona on speed to be honest. In days gone by, everything that sprouted from his mouth was lauded as a master stroke. Last season, even the blushing press were withering in embarrassment from his nonsense.

So apart from the obvious football, the psychology of the season is thus going to be very interesting. I expects lots of bickering and play-fighting, most of it emanating from Jose’s corner. Only this time, he needs to know – the pressure is on him like never before.

Jose can talk crap by all means, but a failure to deliver the title will end his second spell at Chelsea.

Liverpool – Club expectation top 4, but holding thumbs for another title surge.

When one thinks of fans of Liverpool, certain general terms tend to come to mind. These include “blind faith” “our year” “optimistic” “hopeful” etc.

What is interesting about this season is that those terms can be better applied to our rivals’ rather tenuous assertions that we will somehow fall off the cliff performance-wise, not only failing to challenge for the title, but also coming up short in a bid for 4th.

The narrative that is being espoused from most quarters is, for reasons I will outline, quite ill-fitting and it is serving us superbly.

Last year, I wrote in this equivalent article, that Liverpool have the potential to surprise. Incredibly, in spite of our exciting and deserved 2nd place finish, this remains the case. Due to the rather negative assertion that losing Suarez has derailed us before a ball has been kicked this coming season, we actually find ourselves with far less expectation, and thus pressure, than a team that has bashed 101 goals ought to.

Indeed, Liverpool should be under extreme pressure knowing our propensity for “this is our year” talk. This banter, however, has been conspicuous by its absence in this pre-season, and along with Suarez’s quite sudden and controversy-free departure, it has afforded us the opportunity to get on with the business of training without much limelight at all.

It’s not all rosy mind. Losing Suarez is catastrophic – or it ought to be.

Whether that proves the case depends on who you think Liverpool’s most important person is. I was of the fervent belief last season that Rodgers is our MVP, not Suarez, and I hope that this proves correct in the oncoming year.

Joe Pepper’s excellent article (How Pascal’s Triangle Led to a Mental Season) is bang on the money. In it, Joe essentially posits that FSG sought out an extremely attacking boss as they calculated that in order to be more successful in this league, games need to be reduced to goal-gluts. By filling our team with better ‘goal-getters’ than our opponents, we should score more goals in ‘goal-glut’ games and thus perform well. And we did.

The simple and baffling commentary that all our defenders are ‘crap’ last season belies the fact that they are historically very good at stopping goals and have performed well in tightly constructed Liverpool teams with a more usual balance between defence and attack.

Take Martin Skrtel for instance, he was derided in all quarters as a defensive liability last term, but he also scored a whopping seven goals from central defence. That’s one more than Soldado and the same as David Silva!

Everton (H) Jan 2014

Skrtel scored as many as Silva last season

So what the general populous fails to note, is that a team that garners 84 points is very much in balance, just not a balance they are used to. Consider a scale – you can put 1kg on either end to balance it out, or 5kg on either end – it is still in balance, but the one has a net weight of 10kg, the other, 2kg!

I would say that we are, in fact, witnessing a revolution in league football, whereby more goals are being scored and winning teams are the top scorers to a greater proportion than historically seen.

To this end, Liverpool are in rude health.

We possess the league’s current top scorer, and its next superstar. We also have searing pace up front, the loss of Remy aside, and considering the way in which we set up last season, we might find that as time wears on, we are as capable without Suarez as we are with him, due to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

That may sound a bit wishy-washy, but if Rodgers continues to evolve along with the team, we will, in my belief, score as many goals as we did last season because it is clear that this ultra-positive system is a great way to rack up points in this division. Mihail has often said that the third year under a manager should see the true fruits of his labours, and I expect this will be the case.

Rodgers looks for and purchases players with a very definite criterion. In any order: speed, technique and creativity are the basic requirements and this procurement strategy, coupled with another season of steady evolution and take-up of Rodgers methodology, is what will make us a very powerful unit this year.

Rodgers has bought reasonably well so far. It could be suggested that a top forward is a necessary still to mitigate the loss of Suarez, but I believe we will have to go another way, as there simply isn’t a replacement available. Our efforts to procure highly technical full-backs seem to suggest that Rodgers realises this, and I am sure at least one will arrive on a permanent basis before the window is closed.

Again, a good start will be imperative, not least because of the fierce competition and the relative certainty that a failure to ignite out the blocks will leave us well behind the top four perhaps resulting in the feelgood factor from last season evaporating quickly.

We are all a little unsure of our standing in this league and we are not expected to challenge again. This could help us, yet again, be the surprise package for the season.

Thus, if I had to make just one prediction for this season, it would be that at least one (possibly two) of the top five managers will have started badly and seen his team plumb the depths of the league ocean. This manager will be fired at or around Christmas. The Premier League this term is serving up the old “unstoppable force vs immovable rock” party. There are five very large teams, two large teams and thirteen pretenders to the crown. Only one can be Champion, and only four can be in the Champions League.

Something’s gotta give.