To varying degrees, each of the clubs from last season’s Premier League top four have experienced a disappointing 2015-16 campaign. Champions Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United have all fallen short of pre-season expectations, which means we can expect change this summer. Managerial changes have already been confirmed for Chelsea and City, with the appointments of Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola respectively. And many fans of Arsenal and United are hoping for a similar overhaul at their own clubs.
With the influx of cash generated by the new Premier League TV deal, coupled with the scorn of this season’s underachievement, we can also expect major surgery to each club’s playing staff, with no expense spared.
Champions Chelsea have fallen furthest, recovering from early season relegation form – which saw José Mourinho given his walking papers in December – just enough to clamber up to mid-table under veteran Dutch coach Guus Hiddink. Billionaire owner Roman Abramovic will not be taking his club’s failure to qualify for European competition lightly, and will likely arm his incoming Italian coach with a hefty budget to overhaul the squad.
Despite the change of manager, the Blues are being linked with a pair of familiar faces in Everton duo John Stones and Romelu Lukaku. England defender Stones was subject of Chelsea’s affection last summer under Mourinho, with Everton rejecting their £40m bid. It now seems that, despite the absence of Mourinho, Stones is still very much a wanted man at Stamford Bridge. And Lukaku, of course, will be no stranger to Chelsea fans as he previously played for the club following a £16.5m move from Anderlecht as a teenager in 2011. The big Belgian never got a fair chance in the Chelsea first-team and was shipped out on loan before being sold to Everton for £28m two seasons ago. If widespread reports are to be believed, the hard-nosed Conte wants to give Lukaku another shot, and is willing to pay £60m to do so.
With a striker and a centre-back identified as targets, that would give the impression that Diego Costa and out-of-contract captain John Terry may be surplus to requirements. Both players have plenty still to offer but with Costa’s ability to attract controversy and Terry’s advancing years, Conte may feel that the time is right to refresh things.
It is also thought that Conte will want midfield re-enforcements, and that he’ll look to the familiar surroundings of Serie A for answers. Roma pair Radja Nainggolan and Miralem Pjanic are believed to be high on his wish list.
Manchester City were runners-up, and many people’s tip to regain the Premier League trophy following a £130m investment in squad improvements. But, despite a one-year contract extension for manager Manuel Pellegrini, the former Malaga boss appeared a lame duck amid speculation that Pep Guardiola was to usurp his position next season — speculation that has since been confirmed.
City’s squad is not in an obvious state of disrepair. And aside from central defence, where almost £70m has been spent on Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi in the last two seasons, with little return – City’s is a squad that would require only a minor tweaking to get them firing again.
But Guardiola will want to shape City in his image. Despite an abundance of athletic, technically proficient midfielders, Guardiola will want to fill the centre of the park with master-passers, capable of executing his brand of attacking artistry.
For that, it seems he has earmarked Borussia Dortmund’s Ilkay Gündogan. The 25-year-old German playmaker possesses the requisite skill on the ball and passing acumen to bring Guardiola’s City vision to life.
In addition to Gündogan, Guardiola is also likely to want a ball-playing centre-back, and a midfield pivot in the mould of his former Barcelona charge Sergio Busquets. It is believed that a tug-of-war for John Stones may ensue between City and Chelsea, although City are also known admirers of Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte, and retain their interest despite the young Frenchman breaking his ankle on international duty recently.
With Busquets not for sale, and Guardiola claiming he will not raid the Bayern team he is leaving behind, the search for an ideal pivot may prove tricky. Another Dortmund player, 20-year-old Julian Weigl, would be an ideal fit with the way he has conducted the BVB orchestra from deep this season. But Weigl is relatively inexperienced, this being his first season of top-flight football, and Dortmund will be reticent to sanction the sale of a second key midfielder in one summer.
In terms of league position, it looks like Arsenal will finish exactly where they were least season: fourth. But this season will be remembered as a huge opportunity missed for the Gunners. With the rest of the top four tripping over their shoelaces for most of the campaign, this was Arsenal’s big chance to step up and claim their first title in 12 years. But alas, despite sitting top in January, the Premier League trophy seems beyond their grasp as we approach the final stages of the season.
So where can Arsenal improve in order to make a real challenge next season? They finally sorted the goalkeeper position last summer by recruiting Petr Cech from Chelsea, but Wenger’s failure to sign a single outfield player until Mohamed Elneny came in in January, has cost Arsenal dearly.
They need a striker capable of 30 goals. Olivier Giroud is a solid centre-forward, and will always score his fair share, but his is not the sort of world-class option Arsenal can pin their hopes on. They were strongly linked with moves for Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín last summer, both of which, at the time, seemed fanciful. But following a season of off-field controversy, maybe Real Madrid would be more willing to listen to offers for their French striker this time around. And Higuaín has had a phenomenal season with Napoli, netting 30 Serie A goals, but after three seasons in Naples, maybe the Argentinian would be open to change this summer.
Arsenal also need a reliable centre-back to partner Laurent Koscielny. Per Mertesacker, though vastly experienced, can be exposed by strikers with pace, and Gabriel Paulista is a decent back-up option. Perhaps someone along the lines of Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk would represent a good option. Having had a year to acclimatise to the Premier League, the former Celtic player could add an assuredness to the Arsenal backline.
Manchester United currently sit fifth in the table, having finished fourth last season. The top four is not beyond their reach, but those already occupying the Champions League-qualifying spaces look reluctant to budge.
Whether Dutch manager Louis van Gaal is allowed to see out the final year of his contract, or whether the myriad rumours are to be believed and José Mourinho will be in charge next season, remains to be seen. But either way, United could use some squad improvements.
Despite spending £250m on incomings over the past two years, United’s squad still has holes. Daley Blind has coped admirably as a make-shift centre-back, but the former Ajax player is much better suited to a left-back or midfield role. Like Chelsea and City, United are thought to be weighing up an offer for John Stones, with the idea being that he could form a lasting partnership for club and country with Chris Smalling.
One of United’s foremost priorities this summer will be to hold on to David de Gea. The Spanish goalkeeper has developed into arguably the world’s best in his position over the last three years, and the Red Devils will have to fend off interest from Real Madrid.
A player strongly linked with a move to Old Trafford, with many European press outlets claiming a deal is already in place, is Benfica’s Renato Sanches. The 18-year-old box-to-box midfielder broke into the first-team at the Estádio da Luz earlier this season and has been a fixture ever since. Though still very raw – his short passing game needs refinement – the young Portuguese possesses the kind of energy and drive that has been lacking from United’s midfield for several years.
Whether or not United feel the need to sign a striker this summer depends how much they are willing to rely on 18-year-old Marcus Rashford next season. Rashford has been outstanding since bursting onto the scene in United’s Europa League triumph over Midtjylland in February, but it may be wise to bring in an experienced head to take some of the pressure off the still-developing Englishman. Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be the perfect solution. The 34-year-old Swede is out of contract at the end of the season and has already hinted that his future may lie in the Premier League. The main caveat being that the PSG striker does not see eye-to-eye with van Gaal, so a switch to Old Trafford would likely have to be preceded by Mourinho being appointed manager.
About the author – Ryan Baldi
Ryan is a Midlands based freelance sports writer specialising in European football. He has been fascinated with the continental game ever since he was presented with his first football kit at the age of 7 years old whilst on holiday in Spain – a Barcelona strip with ‘Romario 10’ printed in the back. A contributor to numerous footballing websites, Ryan has also covered martial arts for local and national print publications. Ryan’s musing on European football can be found here www.theeurofootballblog.wordpress.com and you can find him on twitter: @RyanBaldiEFB.