After what is often described as ‘the longest 2 months of the year’ for us football obsessives, it is time to get back into the more familiar way of spending our time; for the next 10 months (actually 11 if we factor in the World Cup!) it will be back to submersing ourselves in the ebb and flow of the football season.
Things actually got a little bit more serious for me last weekend with a trip to Wembley for the Charity Shield, (those who read last week’s piece will of course already know that my pedantic traditionalist approach to all things football means that I simply refuse to refer to it by any other name!). Even though it is essentially still a pre-season friendly, (unless of course you are a certain Portuguese manager!), with the game being played so close to the start of the season and in front of a crowd of more than 80,000 it feels like a game with a greater stature than any normal pre-season match.
Heading up to the ground it was clear, certainly at the Arsenal end of the stadium, that those opting to attend this match were comprised of a sizeable proportion of less regular attendees, displaying greater enthusiasm and much less underachievement-hardened cynicism of the longer term season ticket holders. Certainly the smattering of old jerseys bearing names of players long ago disavowed by the Arsenal faithful, such as Van Persie and Bendtner, suggested the attendance of those who had more of a casual relationship with the team.
Neither team played especially well, and it was with an element of surprised relief that we greeted new boy Kolasinac’s late equaliser. The penalty shootout followed the newly trialling A-BB-A… system which actually gave Arsenal significant momentum after Walcott and Monreal had dispatched their consecutive spot-kicks.
Ultimately it was Thibaut Courtois’s seemingly misguided decision to take on his erstwhile goalkeeping stablemate from 12 yards that was to prove fatal, although new striker Morata firing wide confirmed the result. Despite winning this shootout and his undoubted pedigree, it is one of those strange quirks of fate that Peter Cech has yet to save a penalty since joining the club.
The main narrative of the summer has been on the transfer market and the mindboggling sums of money that have changed hands so far, starting with Everton’s and Manchester City’s early summer spending sprees, progressing through Manchester United splurging a reported £75 million on Romelu Lukaku, a player originally rejected by Mourinho upon his return to Stamford Bridge three years ago, and Chelsea acquiring Alvaro Morata for just under £60 million; until we reached the deal to put all others in the shade when Neymar departed Barcelona for a scarcely credible fee of £200 million. The Brazilian has been at pains to endeavour to explain that his transfer was motivated by the desire to ‘win trophies and be successful’ and of course nothing to do with the apparent £520,000 per week he will receive after tax!
Despite the ridiculous amount of money spent so far, it is difficult to point to any real value achieved through these mega-purchases, and in each case it feels like the acquisition and amount spent is more important than the future contribution to the team. The transfer market, previously a mere means to an end, now takes centre stage as entertainment; fuelled by ongoing sagas created by 24 hour news channels desperate for content.
With just under three weeks of the transfer window remaining, it feels almost inevitable that further moves are on the cards, yet it is almost impossible to predict who will be going where? Cash rich and under pressure to respond to the loss of Neymar it would seem almost certain that Barcelona will be in search of a big name replacement; names in the frame would seem to include the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Phillip Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé. Whoever they opt for will then create further ripples with the plundered club seeking to re-establish the confidence of their supporters after the loss of a key player.
If we are to believe the media other major names that may be on the move include: Mbappé, Lemar, Alexis Sanchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain and even Gareth Bale, the Welshman having been coveted by the money men at Old Trafford seemingly since he first left these shores four years ago.
This uncertainty means that it is difficult to anticipate how the Premier League title race will shape up this season, as we won’t be sure how strong each team will be until their squads are finalised. After Leicester’s miraculous title win of two seasons ago, it felt very much as if the normal order of things was reinstated in 2016/17, and whatever additions are yet to be made it feels hard to argue that the top seven will have any different names this season.
Goodison Park seems to have been swathed in a wave of optimism based on the way Everton have retro-funded the purchase of several promising squad additions and the return of the once golden boy, Wayne Rooney, through the sale of Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku’s goals were so important for the Toffees last year that the key test will be whether Rooney, Sandro and Klaassen alongside Mirallas can spread the attacking burden sufficiently between them.
It is difficult to assess Arsenal’s potential to return to their traditional comfort zone of Champions League qualification until the futures of Alexis Sanchez and to a lesser extent Mesut Özil are confirmed. The mercurial German playmaker would seemed to be destined to stay put in essence by default due to the lack of interest from elsewhere; while either bravely or out of some form a delusion, Arsène Wenger has affirmed on a seemingly weekly basis that one way or the other the Chilean dynamo will be plying his trade at the Emirates next season. The fact that these ‘assurances’ continue to be greeted with skepticism is probably due to the club’s track record in consistently prioritising financial gain over on-field performance. The addition of Lacazette will only be seen as an enhancement to the attacking threat if Sanchez and Özil take up their positions alongside him.
Things have been relatively quiet in terms of incomings up at Anfield thus far with only Mohamed Salah coming in from Roma alongside the relatively lower profile youngsters Dominic Solanke and Andy Robertson from Chelsea and Hull City respectively. As impressive as Klopp’s side were from the outset last season they seemed to fade from the turn of the year and ended up in fourth after a brief flirtation with the top of the league. Once again having to combine the demands of Champions League football, assuming they get past Hoffenheim in a tricky looking qualifier, with the day to day grind of the Premier League as well as perceived weaknesses in the back-line and between the sticks, will pose significant challenges for the charismatic German manager and his charges.
No one at the club seems to be admitting it, but is hard to look at Tottenham’s lack of activity in the transfer market, other than the sale of Kyle Walker to Man City, and not relate it to the cost of building the new stadium. The financial demands necessitate that Pochettino trusts the players he nailed down to long-term contracts last season. In addition playing their home games at Wembley as well as the feeling that the past two seasons were opportunities missed, might bring a halt to this impressive young side’s upward trajectory.
Despite winning trophies last season (albeit 2 not 3 please note José!) Manchester United flattered to deceive, especially in terms of league form. An unbeaten run of 25 games actually comprised 12 draws, 9 of which were at home and was good enough only for sixth place, a massive 24 points behind champions Chelsea. The additions of Matic and Lukaku, albeit the latter at an enormous price, suggest that this season may well be another of steady rather than spectacular progress; however the Old Trafford faithful will be keen to see the first genuine title challenge since Sir Alex called it a day.
Chelsea’s solidity and the addition of Morata as either a replacement or complement to Diego Costa, suggest that Antonio Conte’s men will once again be in the mix at the very top. However a squad that didn’t have to handle too many long-term injuries last term and will be competing in the Champions League again, may not find the going so easy this time around. Chelsea’s closest rivals are most likely to be Manchester City’s star-studded squad, led by super-coach Pep Guardiola, which after an awe-inspiring start to the campaign last year, spectacularly failed to deliver, handing the Catalan his first ever managerial season that didn’t achieve a trophy. Pep has led a comprehensive overhaul of the squad which has cost in excess of £200 million thus far and has also seen a significant number of departures. The key for City and their ambitious owners seems to be whether Guardiola can find a way of knitting this collection of luminary names into an effective unit on a consistent basis.
What we do know is that come 7:45 this evening, and that oh so traditional kick-off time(!) at the Emirates, proper football will be back and despite my protestations to the contrary and lack of optimism for my own side’s chances, I for one wouldn’t have it any other way!