Wednesday 13 November 2019

When even survival earns a fortune, Mourinho remains the market leader

Rivals' big spending will not bridge gap to unchanged champions, writes Dion Fanning

Didier Drogba is the cheerleader as Chelsea players and staff celebrate winning last season’s Premier League title
Didier Drogba is the cheerleader as Chelsea players and staff celebrate winning last season’s Premier League title

Dion Fanning

The Premier League clubs are returning to their host nation after a summer spent preparing in key markets.

The foreign trips and the games that are treated by everybody, except the players who play in them, as important are at an end. Next weekend the season starts again, bounding into our consciousness in early August, insisting that it never really went away, that the transfer speculation and the tours were enough.

Now it is truly back and there is more at stake than ever. As this is the Premier League, more means more money. The Premier League is an economic miracle which is never knowingly undersold. As Frasier Crane once said, "If less is more, just think how much more more will be."

Next season the new television deal begins, adding a greater desperation for those who fear they will be near the bottom this season, yet strangely suffocating competition at the same time.

The top four will be contested between five or six but probably four clubs. Existing in the Premier League is enough of a windfall so the need to make the Champions League for financial reasons is lessened. The supporters of clubs like Aston Villa and Newcastle might have ambitions, while a manager like Roberto Martinez at Everton will want to make his mark, but how far are these clubs prepared to go?

Tottenham Hotspur have had a sensible summer. Harry Kane has been linked with Manchester United but the best thing for him, for the Premier League and, naturally, for Spurs would be another season in London to see if he can improve on the 21 league goals he scored last season.

Mauricio Pochettino is an ambitious manager but if Spurs can break into the top four they will have moved beyond some core values. Last season they lost at home to, among others, West Brom, Newcastle, Stoke and Aston Villa, while Leicester City beat them at White Hart Lane in the FA Cup. This was a traditional vulnerability which Pochettino will have to eradicate.

Liverpool are another side who will hope to challenge the top four. Of course, they did more than that the season before last and their mass importation of players again this summer suggests they are trying to follow that model.

They blew the Suarez money on mediocre players and they have a right to hope for more from Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino than they got from Mario Balotelli, Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic and the rest.

Steven Gerrard has gone and Liverpool will miss his influence but perhaps some players will benefit from the liberation. Liverpool will be hoping for goals because - apart from the signing of Nathaniel Clyne - they have done nothing to improve a defence which has let in 98 goals in the Premier League over the past two seasons.

They have also lost Raheem Sterling to Manchester City. The size of the fee was mocked by many but Sterling could prosper at the Etihad. They will, however, need more new faces if they are to challenge for the title. Jose Mourinho had given an early indication that nobody will be spared when he channelled his inner Peter Alliss and told Montse Benitez to concentrate on her husband's food and not enter the arena of her husband's career.

Chelsea returned to England on Wednesday and by Friday, Mourinho seemed to have decided that he had fought his battles on foreign lands.

Chelsea want to be the first club to retain their title since Manchester United in 2009. A year ago, Mourinho couldn't conceal his confidence that he had a squad that would win the league.

In August 2014, he claimed that the only thing stopping him predicting a Chelsea triumph was the strength of the challenge from four or five other clubs. In the end no club could challenge Mourinho's.

On Friday, he said that five sides could win the title and while many people would make a case for four, the reality is that it will come down to Chelsea and one or two others.

Manchester United continue Ed Woodward's spending and who knows where it will end? Angel Di Maria was not the answer so United might turn to Pedro but they will hope for a lot from Memphis Depay. They needed Sergio Ramos or another central defender, even if they have signed a fine right-back in Matteo Darmian. More importantly they can't afford to lose David de Gea.

Their midfield has been rejuvenated. Morgan Schneiderlin will make a difference and if Bastian Schweinsteiger can stay fit he could make an impact but Van Gaal craves more creativity.

Van Gaal has had the pre-season he desired but last year their pre-season allowed many to think that the bad times were all down to David Moyes.

The opening day and a terrible start took away that illusion. Now with more than £200m spent there will be expectations. If Van Gaal gets the added creativity, United could be the closest challengers to Chelsea but they may have to settle for finishing above Manchester City.

In the end, Mourinho may be celebrating again. His side will need fewer points this season because the ambition of clubs will make the competition more competitive, he claims, citing the signing of Yohan Cabaye by Crystal Palace as an example of this economic power.

Today he faces another title challenger in the Community Shield but one which is measured in its use of economic power.

For some, Arsenal have become title challengers with the signing of Petr Cech. Wenger may yet sign a forward or midfielder but as usual he is sounding reluctant, stressing the merits of the players he has.

Last season, Mesut Özil gave glimpses of the player many thought Arsenal were signing a year before. After two seasons in England, Wenger is confident that Özil has settled down.

"London transforms people. I believe that at the start, for people who come from the south, they feel a bit of a shock, and after a while, because the climate is different, people are . . . London is a big city. After a while, London slowly gets people under the charm of the city, I have seen that many times. Then they start to really enjoy to live in London. And the club is a bit the same, it is similar, Arsenal."

The Premier League can be shocking too. Wenger told a story of Robert Pires's first season at the club. He sat on the bench beside Wenger for a game at Sunderland. After 20 minutes, Pires turned to Wenger and asked, "Is it always like this?"

It always is. Wenger made the point that Pires adapted, but that Arsenal side was more versatile and contained more fight.

Wenger felt Chelsea's defence was the difference between the two sides last season and it may be that Chelsea's defence is the difference between them and every side.

"I believe they were more stable than us defensively, at the start of the season especially," Wenger said. "And they had a good start. After six game we were 11 points behind Chelsea, and we finished 12 points behind Chelsea. That means, after six games, the decision was made. That is what they had, a strong start. And we had a slow start. Man City had a slow start, Man United had a slow start, Liverpool had a slow start. Chelsea went off the blocks very decisively, very positively, that made the difference."

Mourinho will feel his side can do the same this year. On Friday, he talked positively about the squad and suggested he would be reluctant to change for the sake of change.

"When you are champions, you owe something to the players. As a manager, I feel that, I owe something to the players. In being champion and kicking people out, to bring new blood, I prefer the loyalty. I prefer the group to know that I'm there for them, and I recognise what they did for us, even if other teams invest hugely and they go with lots of new faces, I prefer this feeling of loyalty to the squad."

Retaining the title is difficult, Mourinho said, but not impossible. Mourinho revealed on Friday that he would like to work into his seventies but there is the nagging sense that he wants Chelsea to do more as he embarks on what is usually a difficult third season for him at a club.

But he insisted he is improving as a manager. "For players there is a moment where their experience has a fight with their physical condition. Managers, no - unless you lose your appetite and that's a different story. But I see myself now better than 10 years ago. I think I am in evolution, not even in stability."

Mourinho may want Chelsea to exercise their own economic power before the transfer deadline but the English champions still have the might to see off any challenge.

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