Chelsea’s title success last season was thoroughly deserved and fascinating in the way it followed a tactical tweak, but it wasn’t the program that had been billed.
The expectation–the hope, the dread–had been for an almighty clash in Manchester, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola bringing the ferocity of their Spanish rivalry to the Premier League, matching competing ideologies against each other while trading barbs on an off-field propaganda war that would make the press-conferences almost as compelling as the football. But it didn’t quite work out like that: there was no Cottonopolis Clásico, there was no Rumble by the Irwell.
For both Manchester City and Manchester United, last season was a disappointment. United finished sixth, a full 24 points behind Chelsea, salvaging the season with success in the League Cup and then the Europa League, a competition Mourinho had openly disdained when Rafa Benitez won it. City at least qualified for the Champions League through its league finish, but it’s safe to think that third place, 15 points off the top, is not what the club hierarchy hoped for when the five-year pursuit of Guardiola ended with his signature.
City’s response to the problems of last season–which, as Guardiola repeatedly pointed out, were in the two boxes; in that his side struggled to convert chances and let in a number of extremely soft goals–has been to spend. City had 83 more shots than Chelsea last season but scored five fewer goals; a fit Gabriel Jesus should help transform that. City conceded 23 fewer shots than Chelsea but let in six more goals; resolving that issue may be trickier.
A net $193 million has been splurged to bring in Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker, Bernardo Silva, Ederson, Danilo and Douglas Luiz. After Claudio Bravo’s struggles last season a new goalkeeper was essential, while Bernardo Silva should reduce the reliance on Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva for midfield creativity.
But the most intriguing signings are the three fullbacks. It was always, in truth, a little surprising that Guardiola didn’t act to strengthen in that area last season given how vital the likes of Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba had been to his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams and given that the four fullbacks he inherited were all over 30.
What’s particularly interesting here, though, is the style of fullback for which he’s gone. Lahm, Alaba and, to an extent, Dani Alves, were all adept at tucking inside and could operate almost as playmakers: Mendy, Walker and Danilo are not like that at all. They’re fliers, who will charge up and down the flanks, overlapping, which suggests that the experiments with using fullbacks to tuck in as de facto wing-halves in an approximation of an old-fashioned W-M, discontinued towards the end of last season, may have been abandoned for good.
Mourinho, meanwhile, has won the title in his second season at every club he’s been at since he joined Porto in 2002, as though that is the sweet spot when he’s had time to work out his side’s deficiencies before the abrasiveness of his personality has worn his players down. This has been a typical second summer of signings of him, addressing specific problems down the spine of his side, and he became the first coach in history to take his career spending to over £1 billion.
Victor Lindelof should add depth to a central defense that was undermined last season by regular injuries. Romelu Lukaku should bring goals, which were a particular issue against lesser sides: United drew 10 home matches last season, at least eight of which it could be said to have dominated.
Yet perhaps the key signing is Nemanja Matic, a central figure when Chelsea won the league under Mourinho. Antonio Conte, fairly clearly, is not happy that he has been sold, and the Serbian was probably United’s best player in the Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid on Tuesday. His passing is an underrated skill–he registered seven assists in the league last season–but more importantly, his capacity to sit in front of the back four offers the defense additional protection while, in theory, liberating Paul Pogba to be the marauding presence he was at his best for Juventus.
But there are rumblings of tension at United. Although a net $177 million has been spent this summer, there have been suggestions that Mourinho is frustrated at the failure to bring in a new left back.
More immediately, there must be concerns about the way United was outplayed in the Super Cup by Real Madrid, despite in theory being far further along in preparation for the new season. Most worrying were the defensive problems, with the organization of the offside line in shambles and responsible for both goals United conceded.
Both Mourinho and Guardiola have spent big this summer, and both may spend again before the window closes. And both must be feeling a little pressure. Given the expenditure and given the expectation, neither can afford seasons as shaky as 2016-17. It’s hard to see where either club would go next and it’s certainly not a case that they will be sacked if they don’t win the league, but they might be if there isn’t a significant challenge.
After an anticlimactic first season, the temperature is rising in Manchester.