Chelsea risk standing still as catch-up race kicks off
On the first-team pitch at Chelsea's Cobham training ground last week, among the famous international footballers and their grey-haired coach, was a teenager in club gear granted full access to the session.
He pinged passes at Jose Mourinho's assistants and listened when the manager gave his instructions to the players. You might say that this young man was born to it all: he was Jose Jnr, the 15-year-old son of Jose.
How the years pass. Jose junior was only just school age when his father first arrived in the Premier League.
Back then the job was to wrest the title from Arsène Wenger's Arsenal team that had gone unbeaten the previous season, which Mourinho did at the first time of asking.
As he signed his new four-year deal at Chelsea yesterday, Mourinho might say that just about everything has changed around him since 2004. Everything that is, apart from Wenger.
It has become a risk in the last 10 years to suppose that it might be different for Arsenal, to think that they might change the habit developed since 2005 when they finished second to Chelsea in Mourinho's first season at the club, and challenge hard for a Premier League title.
Even in those transition seasons when opportunity arose - David Moyes' car crash season at Manchester United of 2013-'14, or when Roberto Mancini's Manchester City blew up the previous year - Arsenal have failed to make it count.
This summer, however, no rival club has damaged Arsenal by buying their best players, nor blown them away by signing someone else's best.
Most notably Chelsea, whose manager yesterday found himself defending the risky strategy of standing still over the course of two seasons.
His club seem caught: unable to buy the players who would make a profound difference to their title-winning team and unwilling to buy those who most likely will not.
"It's dangerous," Mourinho conceded. "I think that saying, is right, the saying that: 'If you stand still, you get worse'. It's right.
"But the same people can move forward. You don't need to buy 10 players to be a better team. You can be a better team with one or two new players and be a better team, with the same people.
"It depends what you mean by 'going forward'. Going forward is also spending £300m. We don't do that. Chelsea likes very much to be where Chelsea is, with the stability.
"With or without FFP (financial fair play), Chelsea are happy to be where Chelsea are. We are happy to work the way Chelsea work.
"Is there a danger of not winning the league? Yes. Five want to win the league and only one can win."
But the question remains whether Chelsea have even managed to stay still. They have sold Petr Cech, the league's best goalkeeper for a decade, and sold him to a top-four rival.
It would be fair to say that, given their status as champions, Chelsea have not made the changes in the summer that would put the destiny of the league title beyond doubt.
If anything, by trusting in effectively the same XI to do it all over again, they have kept it much more interesting.
As for Wenger, this season is the culmination of three summers in which he has added indisputable quality in Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez and Cech.
As for the competition, they have discovered, that it is hard to sign players from the very highest category, and, in the case of Manchester United and Angel Di Maria, to make a success of it when you do.
When Bastian Schweinsteiger represents the biggest world name that a club of United's size are capable of acquiring, the extent of the Barcelona-Real Madrid dominance is clear.
Wenger said that this time his side could live with the pressure. "I believe we are able to handle it," he said yesterday, "and we want to handle it."
It was, he said preferable to those years when Arsenal diced with dropping out the top four.
"We did not necessarily have the potential to do it," he said of those times.
"The pressure is really on you when you know you are just on the border of achieving what is absolutely requested. When you know you cannot miss an inch or you are out. That is much more difficult."
The suggestion that Arsenal might be capable of making a challenge is a reality that Mourinho deals with as best he can, although you can see the prospect shakes just about every tenet of his personality.
His latest way of rationalising it is to suppose the law of averages dictates that at some point Arsenal will produce a title-winning team, which, in that eventuality, would permit him to lavish as much credit on them as you would to the proverbial room full of typewriter-equipped monkeys.
"It's normal (that Arsenal should win the league)," he said. "Some day it has to be. If you are (judging over) one year, two three, four, five, 10 - one day it has to be.
"It's like you lose one, two, three, four, five, 10, 12. One day you have to win. It's probability, averages. Of course."
Chelsea are not the only ones who have failed to attract a box-office name from outside the Premier League this summer, which means that among the top clubs it will be more about familiar faces in new places.
Raheem Sterling and potentially Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City; Cech at Arsenal; Radamel Falcao, and potentially John Stones, at Chelsea; James Milner and Christian Benteke at Liverpool; Toby Alderweireld at Tottenham Hotspur.
If this truly is, as Thierry Henry has been telling us all summer, the best league in the world, then many of the best players in the world have a funny way of showing it.
Sergio Ramos's interest in Manchester United lasted as long as it took him to get a new contract from Real Madrid.
There is still almost a month for that to change, but very little to suggest that the biggest players in La Liga are restless to come to England.
"In a very objective way I think English clubs can buy anyone around the world except the three clubs that are economically more powerful than us," Mourinho said.
"I think there are only three clubs in the world who have the power to say 'I don't sell'. This is Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
"Is anybody in England interested in Thomas Mueller? For sure. Can we in England bring Thomas Mueller from Bayern?
"I don't think so. Because Bayern have the power to say: 'No'. Anybody wants (Lionel) Messi?
"Can you bring him? I don't think so … it is not easy, so the way is to bring players like Sergio Aguero when Manchester City bought him or Eden Hazard or try to be lucky and have an Alexis [Sanchez] who is not playing regularly in Barcelona and try to go for these players who can reach such a high dimension and become stars. (Signing) the real stars of these teams is very difficult."
It makes for an intriguing dynamic, as the quality from below climbs ever higher but the leading clubs struggle to prise away the very top players from the big power bases in Madrid, Barcelona, Munich and Paris.
Look around the league and it is not hard to see why Swansea's manager Garry Monk predicts that this will be "the most intense" Premier League in history, as clubs wager on staying in the league for the £5.14bn television deal that kicks in next season.
By way of example, West Brom look about to break the club's transfer record to spend £15m on Salomon Rondon from Zenit St Petersburg this weekend.
West Ham have bought one of Marseilles' best players Dmitri Payet, for £10.7m.
Southampton have spent £10.5m on Jordy Clasie from Feyenoord.
Earlier in the week Mourinho, unprompted, picked out Georginio Wijnaldum (Newcastle, £14.5m), Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace, £12.8m) and Max Gradel (Bournemouth, £7m) as players who were all good enough for Chelsea.
At Liverpool, change has been rapid again this summer, but there is no question that the players will make a difference.
How much of a difference when it comes to closing the gap on the top four will emerge over time.
In these modern times, the limitations on clubs such as Chelsea and United are obvious: they cannot take the best players from the big two in Spain.
By contrast the likes of Aston Villa, Swansea, and Bournemouth can cherry-pick the best of France's young talent, while Stoke City, for example, can sign Ibrahim Afellay from Barcelona, and are credible contenders for Bayern's Xherdan Shaqiri.
"My players deserve our confidence," Mourinho said, "but I think now is the time to be compensated for that, and for the players to give us everything they have."
Staying the same and keeping faith is a bold strategy and it may yet reward him handsomely.
But it feels, in many respects, like a strategy Chelsea have been forced to adopt and no one is quite sure where it will take them. (© Independent News Service)