Manchester United: Central Defence
United have been heavily linked to La Liga studs Sergio Ramos and Nicolas Otamendi this summer, and with good reason: their centre-halves are not Premier League-winning quality. Phil Jones is a far more dependable defender than he gets credit for; he earned a 7.51 rating from Whoscored last season, higher than Arsenal stalwart Laurent Koscielny. He had an impressive 7.5 clearances per game for the Red Devils last season, but he is prone to the type of egregious error that costs crucial points. His partner Chris Smalling evolved into an impressive distributor and set piece maven, but the 25-year old struggled to mark England’s most dynamic forwards (Aguero, Costa, Sanchez, even Sterling). Marcos Rojo is a solid player and an Argentinian international, but he is a more natural left-back.
Any one of these three can start 30-plus games on a title-winning team (heck, they’re all comparable to last year’s Gary Cahill), but they need a partner of superior quality to marshal the forces. Both Otamendi and Ramos would be excellent additions to this team, but until the ink has dried on either’s contract to play at Old Trafford, central defence should be on the minds of United supporters.
Chelsea: Squad Depth
It’s hard to find fault with Chelsea’s starting eleven. Each first-choice player is one of the top two or three players at his respective position in the Premier League, a testament to Jose Mourinho’s recruiting abilities.
‘The Special One’ has had a much more difficult time finding proper deputies to round out his squad, the main reason Chelsea faltered against PSG in the Champions League and then folded like a cheap suit against Bradford City in the FA Cup. The French champions, despite being a man down, looked far fresher throughout the second leg, a by-product of minimal squad rotation. When he finally threw out some of his reserves against Bradford, Mourinho was delivered a wake-up call as the third-tier side romped to a comprehensive victory at Stamford Bridge.
The impending return of Filipe Luis to Madrid strips Mourinho of yet another veteran backup. His bench has now been reduced to the likes of Kurt Zouma, Ramires, Radamel Falcao, Loic Remy, and Jon Obi Mikel, players who do not exactly strike fear into the hearts of Chelsea’s rivals. In fact, the only star on his bench is Colombian Juan Cuadrado, who struggled mightily last Spring after swapping Florence for West London.
Unless one of Mourinho’s raw youngsters shocks the world, Chelsea’s thin squad could stand in their way of competing properly on all four fronts.
Arsenal averaged 1.3 more shots per game in the Premier League than Chelsea last season but scored two fewer goals than their West London rivals.
The main cause was wastefulness in the final third, primarily perpetrated by French striker Olivier Giroud. He scored 14 goals in 58 shots, putting just 50% of his overall attempts on target. Charlie Austin, Wayne Rooney, Diego Costa, Sergio Aguero, and Harry Kane all put more than half of their shots on target.
Most importantly, Giroud disappointed in some of Arsenal’s most disappointing defeats of the season: 2-0 away to Chelsea, 2-0 away to Southampton, 3-1 at home to Monaco, and the February defeat in the North London Derby. He had some impressive performances, including the Spring wins over Liverpool and Manchester City, but the 28-year-old needs to improve his presence in front of goal to take advantage of Arsenal’s wealth of incisive attacking midfielders.
Manchester City: Central Midfield
Manchester City boasts one of Europe’s most dangerous attacks with David Silva, Sergio Aguero, and Raheem Sterling, but the same cannot be said for their trio in midfield. Even the addition of Fabian Delph does not come close to curing their deficiencies in the middle of the park.
City’s current midfield could be any permutation of an underwhelming group: Nasri-Toure-Delph, Nasri-Toure-Fernandinho, Toure-Fernandinho-Delph, Toure-Fernando-Delph, and so on. None of their four options is capable of competing with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla, Bastian Schweinsteiger, etc. This lack of balance, composure, and quality will be magnified on the European stage, where Manchester City is so desperate to finally taste success.
City showed a cutting edge last season, piling up 86 goals, but far too many of their goals came against the EPL’s minnows. When it came time to face a direct rival, Manuel Pellegrini’s side wilted because they could not control possession or even maintain pressure on the opposition with any sort of consistency. The Citizens need a Paul Pogba-esque signing or a drastic improvement from Yaya Toure to be competitive at the highest level this season.