The Community Shield is rarely a reliable gauge to anything–as Arsenal proved last season by cruising to a 3-0 win over Manchester City then winning only two of its opening eight games of the season–but what was apparent on Sunday was how many of the doubts that have been expressed about Chelsea’s capacity to retain its title were played out.
Jose Mourinho’s side looked sluggish–perhaps simply behind Arsenal in terms of physical preparation, with a view to peaking later in the season and so heading off the spring fatigue it suffered last season–raising key questions about the depth of the squad. Arsenal, meanwhile, was sharp and eager, having apparently carried over the form of the end of last season into the beginning of this (but then again we’ve said that before).
Manchester United has been the most active of the top clubs in the transfer market, but, while there’s little doubting the logic of most of its dealings–bolstering a troublesome midfield area and offloading a number of players who were of questionable value to the club–there have to be doubts as to whether after such upheaval it can find form quickly. Manchester City, meanwhile, appears to be playing a waiting game, treading water for a season before the long-anticipated revolution and blood-letting begins.
There is a clear top six in English football, but it subdivides into those with genuine title aspirations and those who are merely looking to qualify for the Champions League. Last season the subdivision was rapid, and, once Manchester United had got its act together, there were three clear groups: the two title contenders (although City’s challenge disappeared in the new year after an excellent December), the two other Champions League qualifiers and the other two.
This season, it looks as though the split may be two-way: A clutch of four with genuine title aspirations, then Liverpool and Tottenham hoping one of the big four slips up so it can grab the final Champions League qualifying slot.
There has been a divide further down the league as well. It used to be the case that 13 of the 20 clubs went into each season looking to do little more than avoid relegation, but that has perhaps now changed, with a fairly evident bottom six. That means the emergence of a middle-class–the likes of Southampton, Swansea and Stoke–who, hopefully, will be emboldened to take the domestic cups seriously and, perhaps, mount a real challenge for Europa League qualification.
2. Manchester City
4. Manchester United
8. Swansea City
9. Stoke City
10. Crystal Palace
Three major questions
Is Chelsea’s squad deep enough?
If Diego Costa’s hamstrings are as fragile as they still appear to be, can Chelsea cope with just Loic Remy and Radamel Falcao as back-up?
Neither convinced in the Community Shield: Remy had 10 touches in the first half and was offside four times, while Falcao gave no indication of having rediscovered the acceleration he lost when he injured his knee in January last year. And given how exhausted Chelsea looked towards the end of last season, might it not need an additional midfielder to ease the burden on Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas?
What is Liverpool’s approach?
Out, for the second season running, goes a major attacking player, Raheem Sterling following Luis Suarez from Anfield to a much wealthier club. And so, for a second season running, there has to be a recalculation and, after numerous transfer failings, another wave of new players to fit in. The biggest summer signing has been Christian Benteke, signed from Aston Villa for £32 million. He has a fine goal-scoring record, but his aerial ability suggests Brendan Rodgers may be plotting another change of style.
What is Manchester City doing?
City last season looked jaded, lacking the hunger (again) to defend its title. When that happened in 2012-13, it led to the departure of Roberto Mancini as coach and there was a widespread expectation that this summer would see similar renewal, either by axing Manuel Pellegrini or with a major overhaul of the playing staff. As it is, Pellegrini remains in his post and the only two major new arrivals have been Sterling and Fabian Delph.
Rumors continue to circulate that Pep Guardiola will be appointed the club's manager next summer.
Five key faces in new places
Andre Ayew (Swansea City)
On his day, Ayew is exceptional. The doubt is whether his day comes often enough. Swansea, which picked up the Ghana midfielder when his contract at Marseille expired, has made arguably the signing of the summer (even for a reported £5.7 million signing-on fee): he is quick, strong, versatile, useful in the air and scores goals. All the 25-year-old needs to add is consistency.
Petr Cech (Arsenal)
There was something startling about the warmth of the reception Cech received from Arsenal fans at the Community Shield, his every touch cheered, while numerous fans wore plastic helmets in tribute. It’s not just that the 33-year-old is a high-class goalkeeper, an upgrade over David Ospina (who did perfectly well last season); it’s what Cech represents, a player who has moved from a top club to Arsenal, rather than the other way around.
James Milner (Liverpool)
After years of being the odd-job man, forever filling in for others, this is Milner’s chance to take center stage at age 29. He is, by all accounts, one of the hardest-working, most professional players in the game, and the sense is that he has perhaps paid for his versatility and willingness to take on a range of roles: now he can show whether he really can dominate a high-class midfield.
Bastian Schweinsteiger (Manchester United)
United last season was heavily reliant on Michael Carrick at the back of midfield.
The addition of the 31-year-old Schweinsteiger, who worked successfully under Louis van Gaal at Bayern Munich, and Morgan Schneiderlin should ease the burden–even if Guardiola’s comments this week raise questions about the Germany captain’s fitness level.
Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
The acrimonious nature of his transfer means there is pressure on the 21-year-old from the opening whistle of the season, but there does at least seem a natural place for him at City, replacing Jesus Navas on the right. Sterling offers similar pace and, given how the Spaniard’s crossing degenerated toward the end of last season, surely greater incisiveness.
Young player (23 and under) to watch
James Ward-Prowse (Southampton)
Having been a regular presence in the first-team for a couple of years it’s perhaps unfair to say that Ward-Prowse could be this year’s Harry Kane, but at 20 he is improving all the time and this could be the year when he starts to move from the Under-21s into the senior England squad.
Teams likely to drop to the lower half
The top six are safe, and Southampton and Swansea have both invested sensibly, but if Everton is to force its way back into the top half, perhaps Stoke City and Crystal Palace are vulnerable.
But only perhaps: Stoke improved last season and has added strength with the likes of Marco van Ginkel and Ibrahim Afellay, while the arrival of Yohan Cabaye should reinforce Palace’s midfield.
Rumored transfer window move that would change the title race
Arsene Wenger has poured cold water on the suggestion, but were Arsenal to sign Karim Benzema, even for a fee that would probably be around £45 million, it would remove instantly one of the major doubts about the club's title credentials.
Which team could grab an unexpected European place?
Swansea’s ongoing development has been highly impressive, and Garry Monk proved his credentials as a manager last season. The addition of Ayew strengthens the squad further, and, without the distraction of the Europa League, Swansea could easily inch above Southampton and, perhaps, take advantage if Liverpool or Spurs slip up.
Top four prediction
Such are the financial imbalances in English football, it’s almost impossible to look beyond last season’s top four: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United.
All of the top four have flaws, which is one of the reasons why, at this stage, the league holds out such promise. But if the new signings settle, if Schweinsteiger is actually fit and especially if it can add another forward (the deal for Barcelona's Pedro remains on the table), then Manchester United probably has the greatest depth.