You cannot afford to stand still, even if you win the league.
You could argue that it’s a theory created by fans who simply always want the next shiny thing, and if you’re a Real Madrid fan, maybe there’s an ounce of truth in it. However, we’ve seen it born out time and again in the Premier League.
The last time a team won back-to-back titles was Manchester United (yeah, that long ago) back when Fergie was manager in 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09, and though it surprised me so much that I had to double check my statistics, Arsenal have never retained the Premier League.
Perhaps it stems from the level of competition in the Premier League, where there are always too many challengers for the top four spots. Historically big clubs United, Liverpool and Arsenal are now under pressure from new money clubs, City and Chelsea, and there’s usually a surprise package from a smaller club too, whether Leicester, Everton or that lot from up the road.
However, what’s clear is that there is simply no such thing as standing still in the Premier League. Others will improve, and with it, you will fall backward. Fast.
While it might work in the Football Manager world, it’s fairly well acknowledged that making wholesale changes to a team is a bad thing, even if all those players are brilliant players who will improve various positions in your team. If you do accept that, then it becomes more a question of how many steps forward are necessary to stay ahead of, or pass, your rivals.
This year, with the huge managerial changes and the somewhat bizarre final league table of the 2015/16 season, it’s harder than ever to predict who will set that yardstick, and indeed how far in front they will be.
I don’t want to get into a conversation about how Arsenal are failing the summer so far. As Paul so aptly pointed out in his Wednesday column, there is still more than a month to go to the start of the season, let alone the end of the transfer window. We’ve signed a great player who can add some real steel at the heart of our midfield, as well as the finesse when required, and Wenger has made no secret of his desire to sign the much-needed striker we’re all crying out for.
Somehow, I don’t think even he would claim a 21-year-old Japanese forward is quite the ticket. Our recent forays into the Asian markets have, dare I say it, seemed to have a whiff of a commercial angle to them.
No, I thought it would be more interesting to look at what our rivals have done so far this window, and who is ahead so far.
Foxes add to their skulk
There’s only one place to start really, and that’s with the only club we finished behind last year. Leicester have added some much needed squad depth – I’ve written before on the mixture of fortune, circumstance and management which saw them get by on a wafer thin squad last year – but of those signings, only one appears worth remarking upon. Nampalys Mendy cost the Foxes £13.5m from Nice, and offers an alternative – or indeed a partner – for N’golo Kante…assuming the more renowned Frenchman is still at the club come September 1.
Indeed, retaining their best players is probably just as important, and so far Leicester haven’t lost anyone of note. In the case of Jamie Vardy, the decision to stay with Ranieri’s men is one of those rare occasions when most fans on both sides are thrilled with the outcome.
In truth, while I don’t for one moment think they will go down, if I had to choose between Leicester winning the title or getting relegated in 2016/17, I would definitely go for the latter. Their signings so far haven’t changed my mind one bit. Only a fool would attempt to predict the Premier League – and Leicester in particular after last year – but I am a fool, and I can’t see them offering any credible threat to us.
What have our other rivals done?
Liverpool have done their usual trick of spunking a ton of money on a good but unworthy player, in the shape of Sadio Mane, as well as tying their manager into a six-year contract – or more likely a sizeable payout when they’ve had enough of him.
Meanwhile, Spurs have bought just one player – a midfielder who plays in the same position as Granit Xhaka but is infinitely inferior. They’re short on squad depth, but they’ve still failed to address the glaring hole in their first team squad – Harry Kane remains their only recognised striker, and fortune will only favour the brave for so long, before they start to look stupid instead.
Neither offer any serious threat.
So realistically the greatest threat comes from the three teams to have changed their manager this summer.
Manchester City have, despite all Mourinho’s protestations, probably made the managerial signing of the summer – if indeed you can call a signing announced back in the winter a signing of the summer. Guardiola may have six league titles (in eight attempts) to Jose’s eight (in 15), but the former also has a reputation for building an attractive style of football, as well as doing so without spending the GNP of a small country in the process.
The blue side of Manchester are already bearing the fruit of their new boss, with Ilkay Gundogan attracted to the Etihad by the Spaniard’s credentials. New striker Nolito and winger Zinchenko might not be setting the world on fire, but Gundogan is a proven midfielder with the quality to boss City’s midfield, on one condition: that he can stay fit.
More is surely to come in terms of arrivals at Eastlands, but critically Guardiola’s style is also one which takes a time to arrive in its entirety. Bayern Munich might have been a fertile playground for his methods, stocked as it was with the core of quality players who were to become World Cup Winners that summer, but City are used to playing a very different brand of football, and have a number of problem areas to address before they can be considered the most dangerous opposition.
Dangerous as it is to write off a Guardiola team, it’s not City who I believe will set the pace in 2016/17.
Chelsea start the new season with Antonio Conte at the helm, and while the Italian managed to extract the maximum from his squad at the European Championships, he has yet to add much quality to a squad devoid of confidence and form. Michy Batshuayi represents an improvement on a position where the inconsistent Diego Costa continues to divide opinion, but without further reinforcements, there is little to fear from this Chelsea side.
There’s a part of me, too, which wonders how we might have reacted if Arsenal had brought in Batshuayi as our own main striking signing. A 22-year-old striker, even with his relatively impressive numbers in major European leagues, still represents something of a gamble. Mind you, Manchester United spunked significantly more money on a man even younger and with even less goals, in the shape of Anthony Martial, so who are we to judge?
Speaking of United…
Should we fear the Red Devils?
Much as I’m loathe to compliment a club who represented the arch-enemy when I was growing up, and who now boast arguably the most reprehensible manager in English football, it’s hard to look past the red side of Manchester for the club I expect to lead the way next season.
Signing Mourinho is one thing – the man loves a negative defensive base to build upon, and United proved even under Van Gaal last year that one thing they can do is keep clean sheets – but they’ve also strengthened early.
Ibrahimovic’s quality is undeniable, and he might be the very definition of a short-term fix, but that didn’t stop Robin van Persie delivering his one good season after leaving us, and delivering the title to Old Trafford with it.
Mkhitaryan too is a top player. It’s hard to get too frustrated that we didn’t sign him ourselves, as we are hardly in desperate need in his position, but he will certainly improve United in an area where they were sorely lacking last year. Unfortunately, we’re not Chelsea…wait, scratch that…thankfully we’re not Chelsea, but that does mean we can’t afford to buy all the players to prevent them moving to rivals, only to loan them out again all over Europe.
No, United have bought early and bought well – for their needs. I know little about their other new signing, central defender Eric Bailly, but for £30m you’d expect he has a certain amount of talent. But then again, you look across the country and apparently Mane is worth £34m, so… Heck, if David Luiz is worth £50m, then we have little to worry about!
Mourinho’s club seems to have taken the exact approach I still hope for Arsenal to adopt – despite their lacklustre 2015/16, which suggested wholesale changes were required, they’ve identified top quality targets for their weakest positions, and decided to focus their budget on those four signings, rather than spreading it thinly across a larger number.
United will surely set the early pace, and in all likelihood sustain it throughout the season too. We may have finished five points ahead of them last year, but with significant improvements, in my opinion, they now represent the club who will have the target on their backs once we get underway in August.
Of course, as I caveated right at the beginning, there is still over a month to go until we face off against Liverpool, and still longer before the window closes softly at the end of August. So much can still change.
More to the point, there’s still time for us to make the signing or three which could push us up the pecking order and make us the team the world is watching.
Time to get shopping, Arsene. Keep up, keep up.