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July 25, 2018

Three Premier League Questions before August

By Mike Goodman

Does it seem like this summer is moving fast? The World Cup isn’t even two weeks behind us, and the Premier League season is barely two weeks away. The early start to the season, combined with the fact that the transfer window will close for Premier League sides on opening day, means that clubs have had very little time to prepare for the season. Here are five pressing questions that Premier League teams will need to answer as the calendar hurtles into August.

 

Will Manchester City reinforce their midfield?

The fulcrum of Manchester City’s midfield is Fernandinho. It’s his ability to patrol midfield behind David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne that has allowed City to fully embrace Pep Guardiola’s extremely aggressive tactics. It’s not hyperbole to say that Fernandinho is everywhere.

He’s also 33 years old. Early in the summer it seemed like City recognized that they needed to add depth to that midfield base. Jorginho was heavily linked to them before he was Chelsea’d away by Chelsea. He seemed to be the perfect fit for exactly what City needed. He could have played in place of Fernandinho when rotation warranted or in case of injury. He also would have been able to play alongside the Brazilian as part of Guardiola’s quest to see how many center midfielders it’s possible to cram on the field at the same time.

But, after losing out on Jorginho, City have not turned to other options. Instead they signed Riyad Mahrez. He’s a great player, and one who will provide useful wing depth and perhaps free Bernardo Silva to spend more time closer to the center of the pitch, but he certainly doesn’t address City’s real need. As of now, City’s midfield depth is Ilkay Gundogan and Fabian Delph (assuming Delph’s leftback duties are reduced with a healthy Benjamin Mendy returning). Gundgan is a great midfielder, but not a particularly gifted last line of midfield defense. He’ll be fine for those games that City dominate, but against top opposition, when he’d be called upon to win the ball back as much as pass it forward, he’s nowhere near Fernandinho’s level.

Delph might have been the surprise of the season for City at fullback last year. Pressed into emergency duty after the injury to Mendy, he turned himself into an absolutely dominant performer. Guardiola has a history of blurring the line between midfielder and fullback, but he completely ignored Delph as a possible option for a full season, while both Aleksander Kolarov and Gael Clichy struggled in the role. The major question for City is can Delph translate his breakout season into a similarly distinguished turn playing significant midfield minutes? Is last season an indication that Delph finally found the role he was born to play, or that he will continue to flourish as a 28 year old late bloomer in a more central area? If City don’t make any moves to add to their midfield, the answer to that question may hold the key to City’s title and trophy aspirations.

 

Will Manchester United Make Any Major Moves?

Jose Mourinho is never shy about demanding new and better players. He will constantly (and often correctly) point out just how deficient he finds his squad in comparison to those of his rivals. It’s not so much an implication, but a screamed assertion, that disappointing results aren’t his fault, they’re the fault of whoever is giving him the players who are just not good enough. The thing is, Mourinho isn’t wrong that United aren’t good enough to contend for the title. Last year’s second place finish relied heavily on David De Gea playing out of his skull.

And yet, so far, United have made a grand total of two moves. They brought in Fred from Shaktar Donetsk, who is certainly a promising midfielder. But he’s 25 and joins a crowded midfield. Does he improve United? Probably. But it’s on the margins, by improving the midfield options in support of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic. And other than Fred the list of transfers is a grand total of one teenage fullback. Diogo Dalot might be good one day. He might even be a capable backup right now. He doesn’t make United meaningfully better than they were last season.

And more alarming is the warmed over list of names the team keeps being linked to. Whether it’s Ivan Perisic or Ante Rebic or Willian or even Harry Maguire. The names that keep popping up are either old Mourinho favorites, or players who were just notable at the World Cup. After saying, with justification, all season last year that the team’s fullbacks weren’t good enough, the team’s position is now that fullback is fine, and that Ashley Young, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Dalot will provide what the team needs.

There are still two weeks left, but on the current course, it sure seems like the result of this transfer window will be Jose Mourinho complaining in November that the team isn’t good enough to contend.

 

Is the Bottom Half Better?

Last season all three promoted teams remained safely in the Premier League. The teams that descended, Stoke, Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion were all longtime Premier League sides. Stoke were there for a cool decade, Swansea for seven years and West Brom for seven (and eight of the last nine). And it’s not just that newcomers Huddersfield, Brighton and Hove Albion and now perennial yo-yo Newcastle, survived. But, two of the three reloaded.

Huddersfield managed to hold onto manager David Wagner and spent 30 million net to bring in six outfield players who are all under the age of 26. Brighton have already spent a similar amount and are now linked to Eredivisie leading scorer Alireza Jahanbakhsh. It’s only Mike Ashley at Newcastle who, having secured his survival in the Premier League, hasn’t yet looked to cement the squad with a more ambitious talent level.

And now, two of the three promoted sides are making giant waves. Fulham managed to land Jean Michael Seri, and are closing in on Andre Schurrle, two talented pieces to add to a squad that already played fairly expansive football. And Wolverhampton, have spent the last two seasons turning themselves into Portugal north thanks to Jorge Mendes’s rolodex. It’s an ambitious plan that saw them run away with the Championship last season. Keeper Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho are the latest to join a team that includes Diego Jota, Ruben Neves, Will Boly (who’s French but arrived after stints at Braga and Porto).

That’s not to say that all four of these teams will definitely survive, or that Newcastle will definitely be relegated. But, what’s clear is that none of these bottom half sides are scared of taking big swings, reinvesting in the club, and generally spending money to get better in innovative ways. Gone are the days where a successful bottom half survival season meant simply selling a star, reinvesting the money and hoping to do it all over again.

As the river of money has flown ever further down the Premier League table, the variety of options open to ambitious clubs has increased. Fulham chose to spend on a couple of big ticket items, Wolverhampton went all-in on Portugal. Huddersfield and Brighton both held onto their players and then spread the money around to increase the baseline talent level of the club. Whether or not these approaches work is an open question, but it’s definitely a far cry from the normal desperate casting around that the bottom of the Premier League has seen in recent years,

Brighton, Huddersfield, Fulham and Wolverhampton all are attempting to implement unique plans. They probably won’t all succeed, but it’ll certainly be more interesting to watch them try than the dreck that was drifting to the bottom of the Premier League table the last two seasons.

Article by Mike Goodman