Football: pre-season ponderings on the big Northern clubs
With many players now reporting back for duty, or just being a giant pain in the backside to agitate for a move, it feels like an opportune moment to take a look at the big six Northern clubs in the Premier League.
With a World Cup due to be completed before grandad passes out at the Christmas table, this will be an oddity of a domestic season, breaking over November and December to facilitate the searing heat of Qatar. In truth, I’m just glad there are no gingers in the current England team as I find watching my brethren sizzling in sweaty conditions a torturous experience.
With scorching temperatures in mind, I decided to take a look at one burning issue consuming each of our big six as they begin the long road to fitness and general disappointment. Let’s start with the top three.
21/22 League finish: 1st
Burning Issue: Big Ears
Almost everything is rosy in Pep’s garden. His team have just won their fourth league title in five seasons, only prevented a clean sweep by those pesky kids down the M62.
Jesus has been replaced with a true superstar in Haaland – all for an extra £7 million and £300,000 a week in wages (what’s a few hundred grand between friends?). England international Kalvin Phillips, just entering his peak years, has filled the gap left by an increasingly leggy Fernandinho. And Guardiola looks increasingly likely to continue his fullback infatuation with the pursuit of Brighton’s Cucurella, a left-back who ticks all the metric boxes and could present a defensive improvement on current options. Although Raheem Sterling is off to Chelsea and further exits could be forthcoming, the Premier League champs are likely to be even stronger this season.
But as Pep slathers more sunblock on his head and surveys his fiefdom, there’s a dark cloud threatening to cast a long shadow. Can Guardiola’s City win the Champions League?
Some supporters would suggest it doesn’t matter. Their manager’s thousand-yard stare in the Madrid dugout a couple of months ago would suggest otherwise. It matters a lot. When a team is relatively dominant domestically, such success becomes the lowest bar set and sights automatically shift to Europe. Jibes from the Twitterati won’t register, but City is undeniably in part a project based on image for its owners, and while they and their manager would outwardly deny it, becoming ‘European royalty’ has to be one of their ultimate aims. And you can’t become royalty if you never sit on the throne.
Almost like a donkey desperately trying to chomp a carrot dangling beyond reach, the frankly batshit ways City have contrived to lose in the knockout rounds in recent years must be driving everybody involved with the club up the wall.
This season has to be the season, surely? Cue 8-7 loss to PSG in the semis.
21/22 League finish: 2nd
Burning Issue: A fragile engine room
Liverpool’s front, back and sides seem in good shape, with Klopp’s new hugging options for the coming season effectively set. Ramsay fills the only real gap in defence as understudy at right-back, providing competition with his compatriot on the left in the ‘you looking at me’ stakes. Diaz already fills Mane’s spot, and Nunez is a fresh option at the sharp end of the attack. Not to mention Salah putting pen to paper on the sort of deal which should stop Liverpool fans being quite so snooty when debating wage structures. So what could possibly cause Klopp’s trademark grin to morph into that terrifying toothy growl?
On its day, Liverpool’s midfield is hardly a weak link – Fabinho is a world-class defensive midfielder, Thiago can do things with both feet mere mortals can only dream of, and Henderson is, well, Henderson. The problem sits in the squad depth. On his day, Keita threatens to justify that still hefty price tag but the guy is made of glass. Elliott seemed ahead of schedule until his ankle snapped but he is still a teenager learning his trade. Milner can run all day but often looks a little stodgy in the centre and even the Duracell Bunny starts to slow down eventually. It feels like Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best is behind him due to injury and Curtis Jones’s development has stalled prompting a long chat with Klopp last year (hopefully with no growling). Although new signing Carvalho could provide a different option in an advanced role, he is young and making a tough step up. Remove Fabihno and Thiago, the latter of whom has has had his share of knocks since moving to England, and you’re left looking at a hotchpotch of potential and past it.
This may all seem a little pessimistic and whiff of what-iffery, but Liverpool’s unsuccessful pursuit of Tchouameni is telling. There are also suggestions that Bellingham may be next for a clandestine go on the Big One (hey, it worked for van Dijk). But Liverpool’s trademark patient approach to key transfers could leave this season’s engine room a couple of injuries away from breaking down as often as the Starship Enterprise, struggling to keep up with the warp speed set by the rest of Klopp’s team.
21/22 League finish: 6th
Burning Issue: Climbing out of the basket
If Pep’s garden is rosy and Klopp is tinkering leisurely on his drive, ten Hag could be forgiven for thinking that he’s walked into a house of horrors. While their two biggest rivals have been hoovering up trophies, Man United’s rogues’ gallery of managerial failures has overseen a steady descent into basket case status. Such has been the slow and inexorable decline that it has felt a little like watching an oil tanker slowly turn into a rocky outcrop. But enough about Harry Maguire.
Still, with everybody from Rangnick to Mourinho stinking out the joint, this represents a unique opportunity for a manager with a profile like ten Haag, whose appointment in itself shows the pulling power still present at Old Trafford.
Of course, a peacock of Ronaldo’s age and stature isn’t going to strut around a dust bowl waiting for a rebuild. Unsurprisingly, he’s already thrown a strop and refused to turn up for training. Ronaldo’s return of 24 goals last season is not to be sniffed at but conventional wisdom suggests that he was a disrupting influence both on and off the pitch, whose wage could be split three ways and still hook in a ton of potential looking for a challenge. So long and thanks for all the fish.
The first foundations of ten Hag’s rebuild are left-back Malacia who was snatched from under Lyon’s nose, with Christian Eriksen and centre-back Martinez on the cards. The club is also intent on making their pursuit of Frenkie de Jong the window’s most tiring saga. Perhaps more interesting will be the response of players such as Marcus Rashford who has suffered all sorts of nonsense suggesting his form dropped off a cliff because of charity work. These are the times we live in, where the subtleties of a player’s motivation, form and fitness can be wholly attributed to their fight for a worthy cause. That said he’s been bloody awful recently and this season already feels like a Dele Alli sliding doors moment for Rashford.
In essence, ten Haag’s initial mission is simple. Make United relevant again. Unite a fan base and group of players behind a clear and common strategy, reflected in a cohesive playing style. Easy.
In part two, we will take a look at the three top-flight Northern clubs who finished last season in the bottom half, and harbour wildly varying aspirations this season.
Main image by Chris Holmes
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