It's Jose Mourinho and Chelsea's chance to wrestle title from Manchester City
Chelsea appear to be the club most likely to challenge the holders as nine months of madness get under way
Jose Mourinho’s early-season press conferences often begin like a love letter to English football. How the pre-season has been long. How he has missed the competition of games in which points are at stake. How the prospect of the first game has filled him with the old energy, or “the different tick-tock” he said, pointing to his heart. Then eventually, we got back to what really drives him on.
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It came at the end when Mourinho was asked how he felt coming off the back of the only two consecutive seasons of his stellar career in which he has failed to win a trophy. Then someone mentioned the P-word. Pressure. Could the most successful multi-club coach of the modern era be feeling it, 14 months into his second spell at the club?
“Why?” Mourinho replied. “Some have 10 years to win something, I have only two.” This, at last, was the real Mourinho talking.
“I’m not a very intelligent guy when it comes to choosing teams,” he said. “I like to work. I like to build. I don’t like easy jobs. I don’t like to get clubs worked by other managers before me. I don’t like to arrive on time to collect the fruits off their trees. Remember, when I went to Porto, the season before they had been fifth. When I went to Madrid, where was Madrid? Where was Inter before I went there? And I came to Chelsea [last season] at a moment when one team was over and another needed to be born.
“At the same time I came to the only league where four, five, six teams can compete for the title. So I’m not good in choosing my jobs – or I’m good because I choose jobs I really love. This is the second year of my project and I am so happy with that. At the end of the season you, the supporters and the players will judge my work. And most important, my boss, my owner, my board will judge my work.”
Take your pick from those in that machine-gun fire: Arsène Wenger, Manuel Pellegrini and, further afield, perhaps even Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola. This was classic Mourinho, riled, challenged, threatened, and hitting back the only way he knows how. But it also stands for the modern Premier League, a quarrelsome state carved up by 20 competing ideologies, impervious to any calls for outside regulation or, for that matter, the usual rules of economics.
The most lucrative sports league in the world was once described to me as a loose coalition of 20 different business plans. On the eve of the 2014-15 season, the 23rd edition of the old Football League breakaway, that has never rung so true. There are those clubs whose success is intended to reflect well on the nation states or super-rich who own them. There are West Ham clinging on to make their Olympic Stadium move viable. There are the likes of Crystal Palace, who must tread a careful line between investment and consolidation which, as Tony Pulis’s departure has demonstrated, not everyone is prepared to sign up to. Mourinho was back to his best at his press conference
On the first day of the season the questions come down to who will win it, who takes the Champions League places and who drops off the end with relegation. For all the early excitement last season at the small margin separating clubs at the bottom of the table, by the end there were 16 points between Newcastle in 10th place from Norwich in 18th, the last relegation place. That is a wider gap than in the previous two seasons.
This is a rich league, but that does not mean that everyone spends significant money. This is an unpredictable league, but the notion that any team is capable of beating any opponent on a given day is an illusion borne out by the occasional freakish result. Mourinho, like many others, claimed that there were six clubs capable of winning the league, but there is never a contest that wide come the end of the season.
Over at Manchester United, Louis van Gaal was counting his injured players ahead of his team’s opening game against Swansea City today. He is without Robin van Persie and eight others including Luke Shaw and Jonny Evans. A team which wants to play with three centre-halves has lost two over the summer, signed none, and is now drafting in Reece James and Tyler Blackett from the Under-21s.
At least you can say that young English players might get a chance. At Liverpool, they must cope with the loss of Luis Suarez, one of the most talented, and high-maintenance players the club has ever known. History tells us that losing your best player is never an easy problem to solve. At Everton they have not lost a key player this summer, but they have had to break the transfer record to keep the centre-forward they had last season. Louis van Gaal has a number of injured stars
Over at Manchester City, Sergio Aguero became the latest among their leading lights to sign a new contract. Using the momentum of a second league title in three years to secure their key players on long-term deals enables City to concentrate on planning the development of the first-team playing squad. They closed down the Yaya Touré birthday meltdown swiftly too. More than ever, City look a well-run operation.
Long-term predictions are dangerous in this game, but it is not hard to see the division that has taken place among the traditional elite. City and Chelsea have vast academy and recruitment programmes that involve a network of feeder clubs, and a constant cycle of acquisition, loan and sale. Romelu Lukaku’s Chelsea career being the classic example, a sought-after player signed, loaned out and eventually sold for a profit without getting close to a run in the first team.
United and Arsenal have done the same up to a point, but retain a more traditional model on a smaller scale. All this is part of a bigger picture, and trends in football tend to emerge over years rather than single seasons, but it is notable that City and Chelsea are the two clubs most expect to contest the title. Manuel Pellegrini and Manchester City have had a relatively low-key summer
Ten years ago, when Mourinho was preparing for his first ever match in English football, a home game against United, the picture was very different. The rise of the super-rich owner had barely begun, the first work on the Emirates Stadium had started just six months earlier, no one had reason to consider Financial Fair Play and signing players only really related to replenishing the first team. The league has changed so much.
The challenges are more specific as one goes down the division. Alan Pardew starts with a new-look team against City tomorrow, one which could include as many as six new players. Stoke City have made the most intriguing signing of the season, Bojan Krkic, the man who once kept Thierry Henry out the Barcelona team. Stoke have been going through a process of reform since Mark Hughes took over but it is still tempting to regard Bojan as a flower among the nettles at the Britannia Stadium.
It says a lot about the current state of Aston Villa that the most interesting arrival of their summer has been the appointment of an assistant manager, Roy Keane. They are in limbo, waiting for someone to take them off Randy Lerner’s hands. Southampton are trying to build a new team. Harry Redknapp is back in the league with Queen’s Park Rangers. Sunderland have been reluctant to spend big. Erik Lamela, Spurs’ record signing, is fit at last and has an Argentine coach in charge. Newcastle have spent big money this summer
Below them, the likes of Swansea City, Hull City, Leicester City, West Bromwich Albion and Burnley face the usual struggle of teams in that category to survive on terms that will not cripple them if they fail to do so. As Mourinho himself said yesterday, the money keeps coming into the Premier League, arguably the only certainty that exists over the next nine months of madness.
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