The pointless friendlies are almost over! One more to go, then the season starts for real. This one's for a
trophy plate, though, so that's a thing. The Community Shield, the traditional curtain-raiser for the English league season, sees league winners Manchester City face off against FA Cup winners Arsenal at Wembley on Sunday.
For this edition of Three Questions, I have an actual, real-life counterpart that asked questions! It was so exciting we did five questions and not three. Thanks to Nayir Chowdhury of Bitter and Blue for taking the time to talk about all things Manchester City. Well, five things, anyway. On to the questions!
TSF: MCFC have been a bit quieter than we're used to in the transfer market this summer. is FFP actually working, or did Manuel Pellegrini just decide against a gross display of power this year?
BaB: I think it's a combination of three things: FFP kicking in, City's long-term plan to cut spending anyways, and the fact that we just won the title. Obviously by now we all know about the restrictions placed on City from violating FFP policies. Though the management team at City don't agree with the sanctions, we're not going to try to blatantly violate them at this point. Coming off a title-winning campaign means that City also don't have that many needs to address. We had issues at RB, CM, and CB, but the club moved quickly to address those issues, unlike the disastrous summer of 2012-13 when 5 players were brought in on the last day of the window.
Finally, the club's long-term plan always called for eventually curbing the exorbitant spending that we've seen in years past. There was (is) a mission to become financially self-sustaining at the top level. The fact that this relatively quiet window comes on the heels of winning the league and the sanctions from UEFA kind of makes it the perfect time to cut spending. We identified targets early and concluded business quickly and cheaply. Our new academy/training ground facilities are nearly complete as well, so there should be more of a focus on development soon. I trust Pellegrini with this much more than Mancini.
P.S. - City youngsters to watch for: Karim Rekik (CB), Marcos Lopes (CAM), Emyr Huws (CM), Kelechi Iheanacho (ST)
TSF: From where I sit, MCFC would appear to be favorites to retain their title. Given the aforementioned transfer quietness, is that realistic, or do you expect players to regress a little this season?
BaB: I think we're favorites as well, and I think that's a realistic expectation. But, the gaps are even slimmer than before. We haven't seen a team repeat as champions in the league for a while, and City's rivals have all strengthened this summer (jury is still out on Liverpool, though). I think the biggest hurdle will be the players' motivation. In the past we've seen guys like Kolarov, Nasri (I can see you all smiling), and Dzeko struggle for consistency and on the surface at least, effort as well, across an entire season. All 3 of those guys have just signed new contracts as well, so it's natural to be wary of a dip in performances after that. If these guys keep up their stellar play from last season, City will be in good shape again. We're counting on them.
TSF: Manchester City have struggled a bit in Europe in recent years, reaching the round of 16 in the Champions League for the first time in four tries last season. Is Europe a bigger priority for MCFC this season?
BaB: Europe is definitely a big priority this year. We're finally set to be in Pot 2 for the draw so there *hopefully* won't be any issues of a tough draw this time around. We have no excuses on that front. In all the off-season interviews I've read/seen, the players and coaches keep talking about the hunger for European success so we know it's on their minds. Barring a slew of injuries and someone like Barca in the Round of 16 again, I think the minimum target should be the quarterfinals this year. I don't know if we're quite ready to make a run at the final but the talent is there as always.
TSF: How do you feel about Yaya Toure? Given that he's now 31 and had the birthday cake related shenanigans, are City looking for an eventual replacement?
BaB: The Colossus certainly gave us an unnecessary scare this summer, but I think most City fans (myself included) can look past it. Anyone who has seen his Borat-esque agent will immediately be suspicious about the source of all of the 'claims' made by Yaya. He also lost his little brother to cancer during the World Cup and maybe lost his way a bit from that. I don't know. But since then he's restated his commitment to the team and so long as his performances display 100% effort, we're cool. Many City fans have begun the conversation about finding his heir though I think it's a bit too early to talk about that. He's still got a few years left of being the Yaya we all know. As for who his eventual replacement should be, my dirty fantasy would surely be Paul Pogba. But the club might also give a chance to highly rated academy prospect Emyr Huws.
TSF: Who do you see as MCFC's biggest rivals for the Premier League title this season?
BaB: This season is so intriguing because of the situation at the top of the league. Chelsea have done incredible business in the summer, Arsenal have strengthened, and United have gotten a new manager + players. Of course there is still Liverpool as well but I expect them to take a step back. And who knows what we'll get with Spurs (but I bet you guys have a pretty good idea). Honestly though, I expect Arsenal and United to be our biggest rivals this season. I myself can't believe that I typed Arsenal and 'biggest rivals' in the same sentence but I really do think you guys have a great squad this year. I'm a huge fan of Sanchez and it just adds to an already good Arsenal front 6.
If players can stay healthy (which is Arsenal's biggest challenge as usual), I don't see why Arsenal can't make a serious run for it this year. And sadly, I do think United will benefit from having Van Gaal and a bare schedule. I can't see them repeating last season's debacle and they're maybe one signing away from having a squad capable of challenging all the way. Chelsea I'm unsure about. Fabregas is a great signing but is he really going to flourish under Mourinho? On top of that, Costa is a bit overrated to me. But who knows. These are all great teams that have the talent to win the title. The margins are small.
And now, the reverse - Nayir's questions to TSF about Arsenal:
BaB: It's been a busy summer of transfer rumors and signings at the Emirates. How do you rate your transfer business so far? Any areas of the team that still need improving?
TSF: After several years of self-imposed penury (note to newer Manchester City fans: "penury" means "not spending money") following the construction of the Emirates, Arsenal's new commercial deals kicked in this summer - new kit manufacturer (Puma), renewed Emirates shirt/stadium naming sponsorship, and a whole slew of other deals. This all means that Arsenal can now shove vast piles of money across tables at players - piles, admittedly, still not as vast as MCFC or Chelsea can, but still.
All of which is a long way of saying that as of this writing, Arsenal have had the most relaxed, productive transfer season in the last seven years. No major player losses, and of the five areas Arsenal identified as needing improvement - another winger, two outside defenders, a backup GK, and maybe a CDM - Arsenal have filled all those needs except the CDM, and there's still 25 days to go in the window and rumors about Sami Khedira and William Carvalho. So, by any rating system you'd care to use, Arsenal have had a fantastic transfer summer.
BaB: Given the new signings thus far, where do you see Arsenal finishing this season? Will they put together a full title-challenging campaign?
TSF: On paper, this team is as strong as any in the league, with the possible exception of MCFC. Arsenal's problem, though, has often been one of health - Arsenal were in first place until February, then guys started getting hurt and Arsenal's lack of depth bit them hard. These things are amazingly hard to quantify, but Arsenal have been undertaking a full review of their medical staff and procedures, and they have a new head of medical operations, so maybe that'll help? But either way, Arsenal should be stronger this season and I think they will challenge for the title, but maybe not quite get there.
BaB: How do you think Arsenal's rivals have fared this summer?
TSF: City are City - they're good and they're deep and they'll be hard to beat. Chelsea got Cesc Fabregas, so that's a thing. Manchester United are the wild card - will van Gaal restore them to their former top dog status in a single season, particularly with no troublesome European dates to worry about?
BaB: Who will be this year's most important player for the Gunners? Any breakout stars on the horizon?
TSF: Aaron Ramsey is finally becoming AARON RAMSEY - after a longer-than-hoped for ascendance thanks to a leg break a few years ago, Ramsey last year stepped up and became the player we all thought he could. And once Theo Walcott comes back from January's ACL tear (he's targeted for mid-September at this point), he will resume his role as Very Important Gunner. As far as breakout stars, Calum Chambers, one of Arsenal's new defenders, will be one to watch, as will Alexis Sanchez.
BaB: Following last season's FA Cup triumph, have Arsenal fans' expectations changed?
TSF: Arsenal's fanbase has developed a rather stark split over the last few seasons. There are those who recognize the constraints under which Arsenal operated in the last seven years and are OK with where Arsenal are in the overall scheme of things (if you believe that total wages are an indicator of squad quality, Arsenal are exactly where they should be), if a little frustrated that fourth place seemed to be the ceiling, and there are those who have been angrily insisting that Wenger spend as much money as the petrodollar clubs because that's the only way to keep pace with the top. I think both sides have been pacified somewhat since May, first with the trophy that, for some, at least partially validates the strategy Arsenal have used, and then with this summer's statement of intent by being bold in the transfer market.
So I think the expectations of both factions of the fanbase have raised - those who were kinda OK with Arsenal's approach can point to the 2014 FA Cup and say "that's the first of many for this group", and those who wanted a big transfer window got that. I'm still not sure either group expects Arsenal will now dominate the league, but both groups can expect more from Arsenal this season than in past seasons, so this is the most excited a lot of Arsenal fans have been about a season in several years.
Thanks again to Nayir and Bitter and Blue for taking the time to do this!