English Football Premier League

Walcott’s year – why Arsenal could be the Premier champions in 2015-16

Walcott_1885576a (400x263)This season, the Premier League could be the closest it has been for years. Isn’t that what the TV pundits tell us every year to ensure we don’t switch off in August when we realise it’s the same old story? It will be the usual four-way struggle for supremacy and the four main protagonists will surprise nobody: Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United.

Chelsea will be the favourites after their relatively comfortable victory last season, but I believe that Jose Mourinho’s team will struggle to come out on top again.

Chelsea have been too quiet in the summer. Their squad is relatively thin and they have not really strengthened during the close season. Three years ago, the signing of Radamel Falcao would have been seen as a coup, but his stock – largely due to a bad injury – has certainly fallen. And with Diego Costa’s fitness clearly an issue – he missed the Community Shield – and Loic Remy still to convince, Chelsea don’t quite have the striking options you would expect of a club aiming for Champions League glory. Costa is class, but the alternatives are way below that level. Unless Falcao proves the sceptics wrong.

The problem at Chelsea is that it is difficult to build strength in depth because the squad players rarely get a look in. Those that don’t get sent out on loan struggle to make an impact. They signed Remy last season, but despite a reasonable scoring ratio, his main problem was that he wasn’t Diego Costa. And you hear – all too frequently – that the January signing, Juan Cuadrado, may be on his way as he has failed to impress. Chelsea’s “make weights” are invariably just that and, unless you are a marquee signing, nobody seems to be taken too seriously.

Manchester United have been busy again this summer and have a more threatening look about them this season. The team is now very much Louis van Gaal’s XI and the acquisition of Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin, Depay and Darmian looks like good business. The man mountain that is Schweinsteiger could make a huge difference to United’s midfield and Depay and Rooney together promises much.

Across Manchester, City have opened their wallets and signed Raheem Sterling, which gives them more options in an already multi-talented squad. If they also lure Kevin De Bruyne to the Etihad, they will be even more menacing. But City’s ageing team underperformed at times last season and that was largely because their midfield let them down. Manuel Pellegrini needs to get it right quickly, or he will be the first managerial casualty of 2015-16.

Liverpool cannot be considered serious contenders even though they have spent £67 million to strengthen their squad. The purchase of Christian Benteke from Aston Villa could be an excellent signing and Brendan Rodgers has raided Southampton again by signing Nathaniel Clyne. Liverpool, though, are way behind the other contenders and they are likely to be outside the top four or five. Rodgers may also be job-hunting if the Americans get impatient.

The same applies to Tottenham, who have yet to flex their muscles in the transfer market apart from signing Toby Alderweireld, who could be key figure in defence. Spurs have some good young players, but they need more invention in midfield and a bit more “presence” in the centre of the park. Still, they have Harry Kane.

The Game of the People tip for the Premier title is Arsenal. Do I hear laughing at Stamford Bridge (I am a Chelsea fan, after all) on Moss Side and in Salford? Admittedly, it’s a long shot, but I believe that finally, Arsene Wenger’s North London version of Tiki-Taka is going to come good. And here’s why.

For the past few seasons, Arsenal players have said that they go into 2015-16 “with a squad that’s been together for a few years now”. In each of the last three, they’ve said that their big summer signing will make all the difference: Ozil, Sanchez and now Cech. Gradually, Arsenal have added class and experience to their team of identikit squad men. They still need a couple of players, but they may add another before the action starts. Players like Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have to make their reputations now. They cannot be judged on what they might become – they have to deliver before it is too late. This could be their season. Walcott, in particular, has a point to prove and if he’s fit and played in the right position, this could be his year. That will be good for Arsenal, good for England.

Arsenal also finished 2014-15 with some very positive momentum while Chelsea stumbled through games towards the end of their title-winning campaign. If Arsenal get a new striker, and sorry, Giroud, you’re not that man, their title bid will be very compelling. Of course, all predictions will amount to nothing if the transfer window yields some very big deals and Chelsea add some genuine strength to their squad.

So the Game of the People prediction (which counts for nought as we’re often wrong) is:
1 – Arsenal; 2 – Manchester United; 3 – Chelsea; 4 – Manchester City; 5 – Tottenham; 6 – Everton.

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