Premier League: The questions we want answered this season

<i>Independent</i> football correspondents ask the big questions as a new Premier League season gets underway.
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The Independent Football

1. Will United manage to find a strike partner for Rooney?

It seems to be the case that when Carlos Queiroz tips off Sir Alex Ferguson about a talented young player, the Manchester United manager scrambles his European scouts and prepares a bid. You can hardly blame him. Discovering the relatively unknown Cristiano Ronaldo earned Queiroz a lifetime of thanks from the club.

Ronaldo, Nani, Anderson and now Bebe have come on Queiroz’s recommendation and the arrival of the latter takes United’s count of first team strikers to a remarkable eight. That goes down to six when you factor in that two have gone out on loan: Danny Welbeck to Sunderland and Mame Biram Diouf to Blackburn. Even so, six is some collection.

As far as the new squad rules go, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen are homegrown. Federico Macheda does not yet meet the homegrown criteria but at 18 years-old goes on the supplementary under-21 list with Bebe, 20. Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez will be named as two of the 17 non-homegrown players. They should all fit within the criteria but will they make an impact?

It is extraordinary United have so many strikers when they play primarily with just one – Rooney unless he is injured – as part of a 4-3-3 formation. Fabio Capello seized on the fact United played 4-4-2 in the Community Shield last weekend to vindicate his own faith in the system for England. ButUnited’s best performances last season were with 4-3-3.

Whenthey demolished Milan at Old Trafford last season, United played with Antonio Valencia and Nani either side of Rooney. It is their post-Ronaldo system of choice and Berbatov was forced to start on the bench for some of the biggest games to accommodate it last season, including the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Bayern Munich.

However many strikers United have, the form of Rooney will be crucial. After his last World Cup summer in 2006, he scored 14 goals in the following league season – about average for him until he managed 26 last season. United have lots of potential replacements for Rooney but do they have any players who could combine with him well enough to make Ferguson change his mind about the 4-3-3 system?

Berbatov is surely the first Rooney deputy in terms of seniority. Owen will be a more likely candidate for the B-string games in the Carling Cup and the early rounds of the FA Cup. About Bebe we know little, apart from the fact that he can also play as an attacking midfielder. In the Community Shield, Hernandez buzzed around in the second half in a manner reminiscent of Rooney although without the physical power.

The likes of Hernandez and Bebe are sufficiently cheap that if they fail to make the grade then they will not be regarded as embarrassingly expensive flops. It would be fair to say that just one of them needs to be a success to vindicate United’s buying policy. Ferguson is spreading his bets thin these days. Seven years ago he signed, among others, two new attacking players: Ronaldo and David Bellion. It is the former that people tend to remember.

Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent

2. Will Arsenal’s patience finally pay off?

“When we decided to build the stadium I wanted to anticipate the possibility of financial restrictions, so I concentrated on youth. I also felt the best way to create an identity with the way we play football, to get players integrated into our culture, with our beliefs, our values, was to get them as young as possible and to develop them together. I felt it would be an interesting experiment to see players grow together with these qualities, and with a love for the club. It was an idealistic vision of the world of football.”

Arsène Wenger in The Independent, August 2008.

Thus did Arsène Wenger exclusively reveal his credo, and the “interesting experiment” being conducted at Arsenal, to this correspondent two years ago.

It is a laudable aim, but the project is still to yield a trophy, bringing to five Arsenal’s run of barren seasons. And there is an ominous feeling that it is this year, or never. Cesc Fabregas looks to have agreed to stay for one last season in return for his release, and prior to yesterday’s declaration, Wenger himself openly wondered if he should sign on for another tilt at supremacy. Furthermore, the Premier League title race appears uncommonly open.

True to his principles,Wenger has again invested lightly in the summer, bringing in Marouane Chamakh and the unheralded Laurent Koscielny. With William Gallas departed, this leaves the squad with the same problems as last year: a lack of depth in central defence, no commanding defensive midfielder, and unconvincing goalkeepers. The latter may well be remedied in the transfer market, and it needs to be, for Wenger does not have a goalkeeping protégé in the ranks, ready, he hopes, to step up.

All gloom then? Not necessarily. Arsenal kept in touch for a long time last season, despite losing Robin van Persie from November onwards and several other players as the season wore on. They also faded in the previous season, but only after Fabregas was injured. Meanwhile, the likes of Alex Song and Gaël Clichy have grown in stature, Theo Walcott looks to have regained confidence, Jack Wilshere is ready to make a mark, Kieran Gibbs is capable of pressing Clichy, and even Tomas Rosicky is fit. After a summer off, Andrei Arshavin should finally produce his best.

Of the opposition, Manchester United and Chelsea are, to an extent, in transition with key players ageing and others still developing, Liverpool are in flux and Manchester City yet to bring the full extent of the petrodollar wealth to bear. Tottenham may find their first Champions League experience drains energy and attention fromthe domestic campaign. If there is a worry for Wenger (besides his fruitless pursuit of a top-drawer goalkeeper) it is the way Chelsea and Manchester United have brushed his team aside in the last 18 months. Prior to that, Arsenal either won those games, and dropped points elsewhere, or played well without reward.

In that interview two years ago, Wenger admitted he did not think his team would peak for five or six years, though he believed them already good enough to win the Premier League or Champions League. He added: “The challenge we face is to keep the players together.”

Despite the fact that few players prosper after leaving Wenger’s care (see Petit, Overmars, Vieira, Henry, Flamini, Hleb, Adebayor, et al) the wearying Fabregas saga, which followed the fractious exit of Emmanuel Adebayor the previous summer, confirmed the truth of his fear. If five years seems a long time for a supporter to wait, it is a huge chunk of a player’s career. “Le Professeur” needs his precocious lab rats to produce results soon, or have his experiment deemed a beautiful failure.

Glenn Moore, Football Editor

3. The big one: who will win the title race – and who’ll come close?

I believe the title race is wide open this season, with Arsenal likely to press Chelsea and Manchester United all the way. With the youngsters having grown up another year, I have a good feeling about Arsenal. I have always said that they are the one club I’d pay to watch, but as well as silk they may now have the steel needed to kill off games.

I am delighted Arsène Wenger dug his heels in and kept Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard has really matured in the last two years and provides Arsenal with quality and leadership. I think Arsène knew as soon as the rumours started that there was no way he could afford to let Fabregas go. I know some said that if Arsenal got £30m-40m for him, they could use the money to strengthen the team, but it does not always work like that for managers.

Roy Hodgson seems to be enjoying himself at Liverpool. I doubt he’ll lose any sleep over whether Javier Mascherano leaves, not with Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres having committed to stay. It’s nice that I can finally want Liverpool to win games. Since 2007, when Rafa Benitez played a team of reserves at Fulham and lost, which meant they stayed up at the expense of my Sheffield United, I have wished they would lose every game.

I’ve been threatened with litigation if I mention the subject, but I could never forgive him for that. It went against the grain for me because I love Liverpool, it’ll be so much easier cheering for Internazionale’s opponents.

Tottenham seem to have got the draw they wanted in the Champions League and I really hope they get through to the group stages as White Hart Lane is a special ground on a European night. Come to think of it, it is a great ground at which to turn up for any game, even if it is not the easiest of grounds to get away from.

Everton will give a lot of teams a run for their money. Not only are they settled but in Jack Rodwell they have potentially one of the best players in the league. I was very disappointed he was not in the England squad this week, I think he is head and shoulders the best young player in the country, and he plays a position England need fresh blood in. No disrespect to Gareth Barry but this lad is made to measure for the role.

If I could pick one dressing room to be a fly on the wall in it would be Manchester City. There’s no love lost there, and it’ll be even more interesting when the manager names his squad of 25, and his first XI. I did smile at Craig Bellamy’s outspoken comments, but I am sure it was well thought-out and will help him get a move quickly. In all fairness to Bellers, the way he carried City at times last year, he has every right to be a little bit peeved. It is hard to see Villa in the top six this year, which might have pushed Martin O’Neill to go.

I thought Martin seemed a bit low when we played them in the FA Cup last year, even though they had won and were having a good season. I figured not everything was running smoothly between him and the hierarchy so I was not surprised when he went.

That leaves us with the top two. I think Manchester United have made an excellent signing in Javier Hernandez. He looks like he enjoys playing football. He is not dissimilar to the lad I have signed from Tottenham, Adel Taarabt. He wants to play all the time, if there were no goals he’d take his shirt and jumper off for two posts to start a game.

Three weeks ago I could not see beyond Chelsea, but whether they are playing poorly just to get the bookies’ odds up, I don't know, but if you are putting money on you would go for Manchester United at present. But I’m still going to go with the Blues: I think it will be different when there’s something at stake.

Neil Warnock, Columnist and QPR Manager

4. Will Liverpool break back into the top four?

It's amazing the difference one poor season can make. Liverpool find themselves with a new manager as well as those much-treasured public commitments to the club which make Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres somehow seem like new signings. Those names, allied to the arrival of Joe Cole, conjure images of all kinds of thrilling attacking combinations – especially if Roy Hodgson decides to restore Gerrard to his rightful position behind Torres.

Almost as significantly, the pressure seems to be off for a change. Even Jamie Carragher is entering a new season declaring fourth to be the primary aim and no-one is even talking about Liverpool as title contenders. Hodgson actually laughed off those kind of pretensions when Cole raised them in his inaugural press conference. With Roberto Mancini under the blinding spotlight – he asserted yesterday that Manchester City can win the league – Anfield finds itself free of the usual introspective pre-season purgatory and that adds to the club’s sense of momentum.

Liverpool are also the beneficiaries of some good fixture scheduling. Arsenal at home tomorrow followed by Manchester City away next weekend might not sound like a bed of roses but better Arsenal in August, minus Robin van Persie, at a partisan Anfield full of the joys of the new. City – to my mind Liverpool’s prime challengers for fourth again, whatever the Tottenham fans who have accused me of prejudice against them might say – are also best met early. Mancini admitted yesterday that his band of new-found brothers will take two or three weeks to bond.

Hodgson, unlike Mancini, is not presiding over strangers. Some need to up their game several notches but this manager has a track record of extracting more from players than we actually knew was there. He seems to have taken to Lucas Leiva, pre-season stand-in captain while Glen Johnson, poor value for £18m last time, might be less absent defensively given the new manager’s obsessions about good team shape. Nobody really knows if Alberto Aquilani has the qualities Rafael Benitez believed were there.

Hodgson, incidentally, has impressed hugely ahead of the battle. His assertion last week that the big players must look in the mirror and question themselves, rather than blame the travails of the club for their own failures, was an important one. It allows for no excuses.

But the manager still needs to reinforce. He badly needs another striker because David Ngog cannot be expected to carry such a weight as he did inTorres’s absence last season. A left-back is another requirement because Fabio Aurelio, back on the books after his release as a free agent, will surely not make it through the rigours of a full campaign. But don’t forget that this forgotten club have a partnership, in Gerrard and Torres, that only 17 months ago was tearing Real Madrid and Manchester United asunder in the space of a fortnight. If those two maintain fitness, and Hodgson stops local expectation running wild as it always does, his side will be some force. Liverpool or Manchester City for fourth place? Liverpool.

Ian Herbert, Deputy Football Correspondent

5. Can Chelsea step out of Mourinho’s shadow at last?

Last season was arguably the greatest in Chelsea’s 105-year history, yet it did not quite feel like it. Carlo Ancelotti pulled off the remarkable achievement of completing the club’s first League and FA Cup Double, in his first season as manager.

The Italian’s accomplishment was all the more laudable as Chelsea played with a relentless attacking verve not seen since the early 1970s, when the likes of Peter Osgood and Charlie Cooke lit up the King’s Road.

Ancelotti coaxed the best out of his players as they rattled in a recordbreaking 103 Premier League goals, becoming the first team to break the century in the English top flight since Tottenham in 1963.

What more could he have done to prove there is life after Jose Mourinho at Chelsea? The answer came on 16 March, when Mourinho’s Internazionale won 1-0 at Stamford Bridge on the Special One’s first return to the club he led to back-to-back Premier League titles in 2005 and 2006.

Before, during and after the game, Ancelotti and Chelsea were thoroughly out-talked and out-played by Mourinho and his team. To the Italian’s credit, he never tried to take on Mourinho at his own PR-obsessed game. However, when the result, as well as the headlines, went Jose’s way, it proved one thing – that Mourinho still has a remarkable hold over the club almost three years after leaving.

But following the chaotic aftermath of his departure, Ancelotti is quietly remoulding the team his controversial predecessor bequeathed him. Joe Cole, Michael Ballack and Ricardo Carvalho have all gone this summer, as the Italian attempts some much needed rejuvenation of the squad.

However, the spine of the side remains much the same as it did under Mourinho, built around Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Until those four have been pensioned off, the side will still be largely a Mourinho creation.

Ancelotti is the right man for Chelsea now, a steady hand at the helm after too many years of uncertainty. Yet even if he manages to deliver the Champions League, it is doubtful he will eclipse the impact made by Mourinho, who remains the most captivating manager of his generation.

Mark Fleming, Football Writer