Two years ago Leicester City won the Premier League as they caught the traditional big buggers all napping. One year ago the Foxes crumbled as the new season began with Antonio Conte at Chelsea, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. Jurgen Klopp was beginning his first full campaign at Liverpool. Arsene Wenger was trying amidst it all to earn a new contract at Arsenal.
This time the top six have all got returning gaffers, the top seven too if you include the Ronald Koeman Project at Everton (not gonna count them in here, but they’re an exciting prospect, alright). Nobody’s worried about Leicester anymore but Spurs proved last time out that they’re a legitimate threat in any year with the squad they’ve got. Five of the six will compete in the Champions League. All six of them expect a domestic title challenge.
With the transfer window just closed, the six all took differing approaches to their business. Manchester United, true to Jose’s form, got it all done bright and early and the Red Devils have taken advantage of an easy first few games to sit comfortably at the top without a goal conceded yet. Manchester City threw all sorts of cash out there, with an emphasis on refreshing their fullbacks, and came away with some handy talent – although missing out on a couple other targets.
Liverpool? They finally got rid of Mamadou Sakho while bringing in Naby Keita – albeit he won’t arrive for another season. Mo Salah and Andy Robertson are quality additions and Alex Oxlad-Chamberlain… let’s come back to him soon. Again, Liverpool missed out on Virgil van Dijk but at least they held on to Philippe Coutinho. Spurs did nothing for ages and then right at the end they grabbed Davinson Sanchez, Serge Aurier and Fernando Llorente (plus a couple others). Sharp stuff.
Which brings us to Chelsea and Arsenal. The defending champions and the team left out in the Europa League wilderness. You can understand Arsenal having some struggles given the state of things there but Chelsea just won the title and this was one helluva weird few months for them. So weird that losing to Burnley was only part of it.
The Diego Costa situation got no resolution but Nemanja Matic was sold to a direct rival. They didn’t sell the player they wanted to and sold the one they didn’t. At least the one the manager didn’t. Then with Nathan Ake and Asmir Begovic sold, an entire squad’s worth of players loaned out… all of a sudden the team that should’ve been in the strongest position this transfer window was left scrambling just to avoid falling back.
It’s not like Chelsea came out of it with nothing, granted. Alvaro Morata is a great alternative to Romelu Lukaku. Tiemoue Bakayoko is a fascinating addition to that midfield. Antonio Rudiger brings some defensive ability. Davide Zappacosta has some fans back in Torino and Danny Drinkwater is a brilliantly underrated midfielder who has already won the league playing next to N’Golo Kante once before.
They actually got a decent haul. It’s just that how they got there was insane. Costa wants out and is still there – probably because he wants to play for Atletico Madrid who can’t sign him yet anyway. They thought they had Lukaku wrapped up for weeks until he suddenly ended up posing with a red jersey instead. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain turned down way more money to play for Liverpool instead while Fernando Llorente opted to sit on the bench for Spurs instead of sitting on the bench for Chelsea. Then to top it all off they had Ross Barkley in for a medical when the player instead rejected them to stay at Everton.
That’s not something a defending champion expects to have to deal with. They lost players to rivals who were all coming off worse seasons and probably only Lukaku got the financial benefits of that. Something is fishy at Chelsea, something isn’t quite right. Antonio Conte remains a genius tactician so this hardly means they won’t be competing at the top but… what’s going on there?
Ross Barkley is injured so he wasn’t gonna be an immediate help anyway. It sounds like he wasn’t against the move to Chelsea but he also expected interest from Spurs which Everton refused to acknowledge. They pushed him towards Chelsea for whatever reason and Barkley didn’t fancy being guided like that without having a say in it. So, since he’s unlikely to do much before January anyway, he backed right up on out of there.
As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, he was reportedly offered much more cash to stay at Arsenal or join Chelsea but he chose less money to play for Liverpool instead. Like, actually *play*. Not sit on the bench but play, and in his favoured position too. He was getting good minutes with the Gunners but as a wingback, which is where his impact at Chelsea would’ve been too. Liverpool offered him the chance to play in a midfield three as well though, plus they’re the team he supported as a kid. It’s not all about money, you see. Although… The Ox might wanna be careful because James Milner signed there having been promised a midfield role too and now he’s a left back.
The one thing The Ox really didn’t wanna do was stay at Arsenal, however. They had the chance to get the ship righted last season but the same old holes opened up again, despite an impressive FA Cup victory. There’s only so often players can bear repeating the same mistakes. Fans get upset but players do too. Oxlade-Chamberlain was rumoured away all English summer and right at the end of the window it finally happened.
The Ox joins Gabriel Paulista (Valencia), Wojciech Szczesny (Juventus) and Kieran Gibbs (West Brom) in getting out of there on permanents while Carl Jenkinson, Lucas Perez and Joel Campbell left on loans. Poor Campbo specifically said he didn’t wanna leave on loan again and a couple days later it happened. Gabriel and Perez have only been at the club a season or two and are already on the outer – this is a club that doesn’t sign a lot of players and they’re still flipping them away for dimes on the dollar.
On the way in are Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac. Both seem like great additions to the squad except that after scoring on PL debut in the comeback win over Leicester, Lacazette was subbed off without having a shot in the defeat to Stoke and Kolasinac didn’t last the ninety either. Neither started as the Gunners were smashed 4-0 by Liverpool… although Oxlade-Chamberlain did.
Kolasinac was a free but leaving record-signing Lacazette out for the biggest game of the season so far was mental – especially for a wasteful Danny Welbeck. What’s also odd is that Gabriel was sold and Shkodran Mustafi was apparently close to leaving yet they never bothered signing another defender. That’s eight goals conceded in three games while Man United have conceded none. You can blame the fixture list, sure, but United have also played Leicester and barely even looked like conceding.
The back three reinvigorated their season just in time to win the FA Cup, so obviously Wenger had to keep going with it. Yet three different back threes in three games can’t be the blueprint. That only makes them look like they don’t know what they’re doing.
4-3 vs Leicester: Holding, Monreal, Kolasinac
0-1 vs Stoke: Mustafi, Monreal, Kolasinac
0-4 vs Liverpool: Holding, Koscielny, Monreal
But they held on to Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, so that’s a good deal, right? Yeah… dunno about that. Ozil is currently neck-deep in some beef with the Arsenal legends (once that happens, you’ve done something wrong). Ian Wright, true to his name, is right. You can’t get stroppy at the club’s icons when you’re holding out on signing a new contract. Thing is he might have already been sold if any club willing to take him could afford his wages – remember the Oxlade-Chamberlain decision in contrast here.
As for Alexis Sanchez, he’ll only be leaving for free next season anyway - unless something completely unexpected happens then he’s not signing a new deal. He’s professional enough to keep battling away and he remains their best player. If he gets them back in the Champions League then it’s worth letting him go for free but is that happening with this defence? If he doesn’t get them back in the Champions League, single-handedly or whatever, then they’re throwing money away – rumour was they had a £55m offer from City for Sanchez accepted but only on the provision that they could get Thomas Lemar in from Monaco. Which they didn’t so nothing happened.
This isn’t all Wenger’s fault, as many would suggest. But it’s more his fault than it is Conte’s at Chelsea. Sometimes you’ve just gotta pull that band-aid off and while Wenger has understandably come to rely on Sanchez in recent times, this season out of the UCL is either something to throw a tantrum about or it’s an opportunity to guide this club into the future. And Wenger, to his credit, tried; Lemar is 21 years old and full of goals and skill. He wanted to stay at Monaco though. Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t want to stay at Arsenal.
Which brings this back around to one more point on Liverpool. When Coutinho scored for Brazil the other day he broke down in tears. A convenient back injury means he hasn’t played yet for the Reds, who have looked pretty solid without him, but he was good to go for his country. It’s no secret that he wants to go to Barcelona. Transfer request firmly declined, he remains a Liverpool player but we’ll see how his attitude is compared to Sanchez’s in the coming weeks. Sanchez has a contract that expires at the end of the season though – Coutinho just signed a five-year upgrade in January.
So silly Phil if he thinks he can force a move so soon after that but consider if Liverpool had accepted a bid from Barca. The might have even been able to drive them up to nine-figures in which case there’s all the money they need right there to get Virgil van Dijk – you think Southampton are brave enough to decline £100m? Maybe, they were pretty firm about wanting to keep him… same as Liverpool were with Coutinho. If they straight swapped Coutinho from their squad for van Dijk though, who is gonna argue that they aren’t a better team?
Just another thing to ponder after a typically complicated transfer window.
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