So Manchester City start the season with a comfortable win, lifting the Community Shield after a comfortable 2-0 win over Chelsea at Wembley. Better performances, sterner tests and more significant stages lie ahead, but there was an ominous impressiveness about City, a sense of a team slowly clicking into gear.
It’s very rare that the Community Shield has anything more than symbolic value, as a glance down the recent winners demonstrates. Arsenal has won it in three of the past four seasons, and it has never signalled a season of anything other than the familiar old frustrations. David Moyes enjoyed a victorious start as Manchester United manager in 2013, and that didn’t turn out well either.
Not since 2010 has the winner gone on to win the league title, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the only truly memorable aspect of any Community Shield in recent times was Jose Mourinho’s attitude in 2015, his weirdly baggy tracksuit and grumpy manner giving the first concrete signs that just three months after he’d led Chelsea to the league title, something had gone seriously awry in his relationship with the Stamford Bridge hierarchy.
There were no ill-fitting tracksuits this year, nor any grumpiness. This was a perfectly entertaining game, as is to be expected between two managers who like each other and admire the style of football each plays but it said very little about how the season will go other than that City is an exceptionally good side and that neither side is really ready for the campaign to come.
But then how could they be? The Community Shield kicked off 20 days and 21 hours after the end of the World Cup final, by far the shortest gap between the two fixtures since 1966. It was hardly surprising that there was a raft of absentees on both sides and it’s not clear how fit those players who were involved in the semi-finals of the World Cup and beyond will be next weekend when the season starts for real.
For City, at least there was a sense of a machine ticking over. It has never retained the league title, but Pep Guardiola has won hat-tricks of championships at each of his previous clubs. His relentlessness should prevent the sort of drift that following the Premier League wins under Roberto Mancini and Mauricio Pellegrini. And there was an edge to City’s play here, a sense that it was regarding this as at least a little more than just a pre-season game.
For Chelsea, though, there are major concerns. Back in May, when it beat Manchester United to win the FA Cup at Wembley, it was very obviously the end of a chapter, Antonio Conte saying farewell with a success that, if it meant anything at all, was a gesture of defiance at a board with which he had fallen out several months earlier.
Since then, it has a new manager – although it took a bizarrely long time to get rid of the old one – but there is very little sense of a new squad being built. Jorginho, who excelled under Sarri at Napoli, was pinched from under City’s noses and Rob Green has arrived as back-up goalkeeper, but otherwise there has been no movement. That’s a particular concern for two reasons: firstly, that Chelsea looked extremely short of creativity last season and was very reliant on Eden Hazard; and secondly, that it’s far from certain Hazard and Willian will still be at the club beyond the end of August.
Neither played here, with Pedro Rodriguez on the right and the promising youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi on the right. Not too much should be read into that, though, given both sides rested players who went deep in the World Cup.
The decision to close the English transfer window before the start of the season was taken with the best of intentions and in the medium- to long-term it will probably be a positive, but it will take teams time to adjust and this summer, with such a short gap between the World Cup and the start of the season, was probably the worst time to do it. The window in the rest of western Europe closes at the end of August: big clubs, in other words, have three weeks extra to put together major bids for Premier League players. If, say, Real Madrid were to offer $120m for Hazard, could Chelsea really say no?
And that is the biggest question for Chelsea not just today or this week but in the future. What sort of club does it want to be? Is it still a superpower backed by great wealth, or something a little more cautious. What City is, meanwhile, is clear and it should unnerve the rest of the Premier League.