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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 9 March 2021

Changing dynamics of the 'Big Six' in Premier League title race

While the title race is more open than ever, writes Richard Jolly, expect to see the champions among the final two challengers.
Jack Wilshere will be pivotal for whether Arsenal can challenge for the title or just be also-rans the in his second full season in the first team.
Jack Wilshere will be pivotal for whether Arsenal can challenge for the title or just be also-rans the in his second full season in the first team.
For a man renowned for veiled jibes, incendiary asides and a range of comments that tend to be bracketed together in a folder marked "mind games", Sir Alex Ferguson is capable of even-handed, even impartial, remarks.

"You are looking at the top six fighting for the top four. You look at those teams and say any one of them could win the league," he said, discussing not merely Manchester United, but also Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham. Forget the Big Four, this is the Big Six.

When Ferguson said, separately, that the trophy is normally contested by two teams, it could be interpreted as contradicting himself. It is actually accurate analysis; there have been few six-horse title races. Over the years, plenty of potential challengers have fallen by the wayside, while Ferguson's United are invariably among the duelling pair who last the course.

It why they merit their billing as favourites. The very reason that there might be six challengers is that each candidature is flawed.

In United's case, the question marks concern a central midfield in which a summer of trying to sign is yet to yield an arrival, and the wisdom of selecting a goalkeeping ingénue, in David de Gea, to replace the storied great, Edwin van der Sar. Yet in a year of underwhelming away form and when Wayne Rooney underachieved, they found a way to prosper. A winning mentality can conquer all.

Chelsea's match of wunderkind manager Andre Villas-Boas and an aged playing staff generates intrigue. It presents an immediate test of his decision-making: do Chelsea's veterans have a final title left in them, or is it time to advance the next generation?

Arsenal's dilemma is very different: after a six-year wait for silverware, can they introduce the necessary pragmatism to prosper. They have a continuity of approach, but the squabble at the top is marked by changing dynamics.

Manchester City's arrival as powerbrokers is now widely acknowledged although, after seasons of 68 and 71 points, a seismic step forward is needed to propel them to a first league championship since 1968.

They are not alone in enduring an agonising wait, but others have advantages they did not possess 12 months ago. Tottenham, last winners in 1961, no longer have Champions League football and Liverpool, whose 18th crown came in 1990, don't have the distraction of continental competition at all while this is the first summer in three where Anfield hasn't hosted in-fighting.

Yet ambitious and the avaricious, the recent winners and those with sepia-tinted memories of distant triumphs should be united by one realisation: Ferguson's men remain the team to beat. The manager of the favourites has made one prediction of his own.

"Eighty-four points will win the league," he said. "Definitely."

The Big Six

Manchester United

Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson

Last season: 1st.

History makers who were 90 minutes, if a country mile away, from winning the Champions League. Won a record 19th title, sometimes grinding the results out, but were outstanding at home, only dropping two points and displayed more of a flourish in the final three months of the campaign.

This season: A younger squad without the vast experience of Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Wes Brown and John O'Shea. Have had their costliest summer for four years, with Sir Alex Ferguson casting prudence aside, but are still looking for a successor to Scholes.

Key arrivals: Ashley Young (Midfielder, Aston Villa), Phil Jones (Defender, Blackburn), David de Gea (Goalkeeper, A Madrid)

Key departures:Edwin van der Sar (Goalkeeper, retired), Paul Scholes (Midfielder, retired), Owen Hargreaves (Midfielder, released), Wes Brown (Defender, Sunderland), John O'Shea (Defender, Sunderland)

Key man: Wayne Rooney - To a certain extent he always is, but after a below-par year last season, more will be expected of the trump card.

On borrowed time: Dimitar Berbatov - Joint top scorer in the Premier League last season, but not even a substitute in the Champions League final.

Three key questions

1. Can they win on the road? A meagre total of five away wins last season was the lowest any champions managed in 34 years.

2. Will Edwin van der Sar be missed? United have gone from one of the more experienced goalkeepers to a comparative novice, 20-year-old De Gea.

3. How often will Rio Ferdinand play? United's results are far better when the oft-injured centre-back is paired with Nemanja Vidic.


Manager: Andre Villas-Boas

Last season: 2nd.

Started brilliantly, slumped dramatically and limped to the finish, costing Carlo Ancelotti his job. Scored 34 goals fewer than in the previous campaign in the worst year of Roman Abramovich era, not helped by the mid-season signing of Fernando Torres. An experienced team started to show their age.

This season: A new and fresh face in the dugout, in the shape of the precocious Villas-Boas, but the same veterans on the bench, albeit without the injured Michael Essien for at least half the season. Likely to carry on playing 4-3-3, but will be charged with doing it with more panache.

Key arrivals: Thibaut Courtois (Goalkeeper, Genk), Oriol Romeu (Midfielder, Barcelona), Romelu Lukaku (Forward, Anderlecht)

Key departures: Michael Mancienne (Defender, Hamburg), Yuri Zhirkov (Midfielder, Anzhi Makhachkala)

Key man: Frank Lampard - The midfielder turned 33 over the summer, so does he still have the stamina to make his box-to-box, goalscoring runs?

On borrowed time: NicolasAnelka - The French striker seems content to see out the final year of his contract and faces increasing competition for his place from Chelsea's younger forwards.

Three key questions

1. Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres? It seems a straight fight for the sole striker's place, with Villas-Boas deeming they cannot play together.

2. Is this team too old? Villas-Boas has recruited teenagers, suggesting he is worried it might be.

3. Can Villas-Boas repeat his impact at Porto? In his only season at the Estadio do Dragao, the manager won a treble.

Manchester City

Manager: Roberto Mancini

Last season: 3rd.

Ended a 35-year wait for silverware by lifting the FA Cup and a 34-year gap without a top-three finish to qualify for the Champions League for the first time. More solid than spectacular, but driven on relentlessly by Carlos Tevez and his goals.

This season: Have the twin tasks of competing in the Champions League and mounting a first title push of the modern era. Will hope that statistically the division's joint best defence is improved by the signings of Stefan Savic and Gael Clichy, but will need to top last year's total of 60 goals.

Key arrivals: Gael Clichy (Defender, Arsenal), Stefan Savic (Defender, P Belgrade), Sergio Aguero (Forward, A Madrid)

Key departures: Shay Given (Goalkeeper, Aston Villa), Jerome Boateng (Defender, Bayern Munich), Jo (Forward, Internacional), Patrick Vieira (Midfielder, retired)

Key man: Sergio Aguero - A £38 million price tag would put the Argentine under pressure, even without the responsibility of replacing Tevez, if his fellow Argentine goes.

On borrowed time: Aleksandar Kolarov - Arrival of Clichy at left-back puts the Serb under threat, though he can play midfield.

Three key questions

1. Can they beat their title rivals? City were accused, sometimes fairly, of playing for 0-0 draws and only won one of their six games against the top four.

2. How will the Champions League affect them? Tottenham, newcomers to the competition, struggled to maintain their domestic form last year.

3. Will Mario Balotelli mature? Mancini needs to know if he can trust his fellow Italian, whose temperament is a perpetual issue.


Manager: Arsene Wenger

Last season: 4th.

Came fourth in a two-horse race. Got into a promising position before a dreadful final three months of the season. Actually had the best away record in the division, but lost four times at home, raising questions about their nerve - not to mention their goalkeeping and defending.

This season: A little older, hoping this will be the year that potential is finally translated into trophies. Have a fully-fit Thomas Vermaelen to bolster the back four, but, surprisingly, no experienced defenders have been signed so far while the battle to keep hold of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas continues.

Key arrivals: Gervinho (Forward, Lille), Carl Jenkinson (Defender, Charlton), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Midfielder, Southampton)

Key departures: Gael Clichy (Defender, Manchester City)

Key man: Robin van Persie - Scored 18 goals in 19 league starts last season. If he is fit enough to begin 38 games, how many will he manage?

On borrowed time: Andrey Arshavin - Lost his place in the first-choice side last season and has a habit of going missing in games.

Three key questions

1. Can they cope with the pressure? Arsenal found ways not to win games as last season's title race reached its conclusion.

2. Can Wojciech Szczesny end the goalkeeping debate? Wenger has put his faith in the 21-year-old, rather than sign an experienced keeper.

3. Will Wenger buy a defender? Phil Jagielka, Chris Samba and Gary Cahill have all been linked, but no one has arrived to add solidity at the back.

Tottenham Hotspur

Manager: Harry Redknapp

Last season: 5th.

Beat both Inter and AC Milan on a thrilling debut campaign in the Champions League, but, even though Gareth Bale won the PFA Player of the Year award, they rarely reached such heights in England. Had the worst attack (55 goals scored) and the leakiest defence (46 conceded) of the top six sides.

This season: Virtually unchanged, largely to their relief, after refusing Luka Modric's request to join Chelsea. The signing of Brad Friedel may bode badly for the mercurial goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes. Otherwise, Redknapp has been unusually quiet in the transfer window but he is the master of the last-minute deal.

Key arrivals: Brad Friedel (Goalkeeper, Aston Villa)

Key departures: Jonathan Woodgate (Defender, Stoke), Jamie O'Hara (Midfielder, Wolves)

Key man: Luka Modric - Allied class with commitment last season, but how will he perform now his head has been turned?

On borrowed time: David Bentley - If Tottenham could have sold the winger, they would have done by now.

Three key questions

1. Will the strikers score more? Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Robbie Keane only netted 18 league goals last year whereas they managed 37 the previous campaign.

2. Can they beat the minnows? Spurs did not record a single win against Wigan, West Ham or Blackpool last season.

3. Can they win at White Hart Lane? A total of nine home draws was much the highest of the favourites, one of nine victories much the lowest.


Manager: Kenny Dalglish

Last season: 6th.

It was a season of two halves. Awful under Roy Hodgson, when they dropped into the relegation zone, they were invigorated by Kenny Dalglish. Lost Fernando Torres in January, but emerged the happier after the signings of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez. Still couldn't quite qualify for Europe, however.

This season: Back among the big spenders after Fenway Sports Group fulfilled their promise to invest in the team. Very much Dalglish's team now, but with a squad featuring some of Hodgson and Rafa Benitez's less judicious buys. Aiming to reclaim their membership of the Big Four after finishing in seventh and sixth in the last two seasons.

Key arrivals: Stewart Downing (Midfielder, Aston Villa), Jordan Henderson (Midfielder, Sunderland), Charlie Adam (Blackpool, Midfielder), Alexander Doni (Goalkeeper, Roma)

Key departures: Paul Konchesky (Defender, Leicester), Milan Jovanovic (Midfielder, Anderlecht)

Key man: Luis Suarez - Since joining from Ajax, the Uruguayan has shown he has the potential to wreak havoc in Premier League defences.

On borrowed time: Raul Meireles - The creative Portuguese is a crowd favourite, but it seems Dalglish isn't as convinced of his worth.

Three key questions

1. Where do the new midfielders play? By adding Adam, Henderson and Downing, Dalglish is spoilt for choice in the middle.

2. Can they win on the road? Liverpool's away record last season - with only five wins and 11 defeats - was worse than relegated Blackpool's.

3. Can they begin well? They have started the last two seasons terribly and the first two months contain a surfeit of tough-looking games.

Can the rest of the Premier League cause a surprise?


Manager: Davie Moyes

Last season: 7th.

A dreadful start saw them threatened with relegation, however, they rallied brilliantly on a relatively small budget - again.

This season: No major signings yet and there is growing unrest among the fans that the lack of investment will force out manager Moyes.

Key arrival: Eric Dier (Sporting Lisbon)

Key departures: Iain Turner (goalkeeper, released), James Vaughan (forward, Norwich City)

Key man: Tim Cahill: The Australian's midfielder's consistency and aerial ability is incredible. Expect another season of goals and shadow boxing with corner flags.


Manager: Martin Jol

Last season: 8th.

Mark Hughes did a great job. Fulham were strong at the back and quick on the counter-attack. Then he left in the summer for the Aston Villa job, which wasn't his.

This season: Jol is the third manager in three years, but he just has to stick with what has been a successful formula.

Key arrivals: John Arne Riise (defender, Roma), Marcel Gevoc (midfielder, Slovan Liberec)

Key departures: Zoltan Gera (midfielder, released), Diomansy Kamara (forward, Eskiehirspor),

Key man: Bobby Zamora: The striker has his faults, but was in superb goal-scoring form before breaking a leg last term.

Aston Villa

Manager: Alex McLeish

Last season: 9th.

This time last year they were searching for a new manager after Martin O'Neill walked out. It didn't get better under Gerard Houllier, who left for health reasons.

This season: McLeish has the fans to win over - quickly. He has watched some of his best players leave, but will still hope for a top-10 finish at least.

Key arrivals: Charles N'Zogbia (midfielder, Wigan), Shay Given (goalkeeper, Manchester City)

Key departures: Brad Friedel (goalkeeper, Tottenham), Ashley Young (forward, Manchester United), Stewart Downing (forward, Liverpool)

Key man: Charles N'Zogbia: Can be unstoppable at his best. If he plays well, so will Villa.


Manager: Steve Bruce

Last season: 10th.

Good in 2010, not so much after losing Darren Bent to Villa in January. They looked like European challengers pre-Christmas and then were averagely mid-table.

This season: This is a massive season. A lot of money has been spent and the fans, and chairman Niall Quinn, need to see a return.

Key arrivals: Craig Gardner (defender, Birmingham City)Wes Brown (defender, Manchester United), John O'Shea (defender, Manchester United)

Key departure: Jordan Henderson (defender, Liverpool)

Key man: Wes Brown: With Henderson away, Sunderland need the former Old Trafford man to be as dominant as he was when England first-choice.

West Brom

Manager: Roy Hodgson

Last season: 11th.

Were going along fine when Roberto di Matteo was surprisingly dismissed. Roy Hodgson took over and it got even better.

This season: Much of the same, but there is no reason to see why West Brom cannot break into the top 10 with a settled squad.

Key arrivals: Zoltan Gera (midfielder, Fulham), Ben Foster (goalkeeper, Birmingham) Shane Long (forward, Reading)

Key departure: Scott Carson (goalkeeper, Bursapor),

Key man: Ben Foster: The former England keeper was excellent for Birmingham last term and this is a chance for him to revive his career.

Newcastle United

Manager: Alan Pardew

Last season: 12th.

They got rid of Chris Hughton, who led them to promotion, and then sold Andy Carroll in January. Poor decisions.

This season: Joey Barton is the latest player off-loaded as the club's owner Mike Ashley, who lost £200million in shares last week, is desperate to sell the club.

Key arrivals: Demba Ba (forward, West Ham), Sylvain Marveaux (forward, Rennes)

Departures: Kevin Nolan (midfielder, West Ham), Joey Barton (midfielder, released)

Key man: Sylvain Marveaux: The striker was Anfield bound, but joined Newcastle with a big reputation and the hope he can become a Geordie hero.

Stoke City

Manager: Tony Pulis

Last season: 13th.

Made it into Europe and lost the FA Cup Final to Manchester City. They could not have done any more.

This season: They have managed to establish themselves as a Premier League mainstay and yet it is going to be difficult to top last time, unless they can produce in Europa League.

Key arrival: Jonathan Woodgate (defender, Tottenham)

Key departure: Ibrahima Sonko (defender), Abdoulaye Faye (defender) both released, Eidur Gudjohnsen (forward, AEK XI)

Key man: Robert Huth. The big defender has been a rock in the Potteries. He's not an easy man to get past and is a leader on the field.

Bolton Wanderers

Manager: Owen Coyle

Last season: 14th.

Started well and then won only five times after Christmas, a series which saw them plummet down the table, although were never in serious trouble. Lost FA Cup semi-final 5-0 to Stoke.

This season: A lot depends on whether they keep Gary Cahill. Bolton's need to score more goals to get beyond mid-table.

Key arrivals: Chris Eagles (forward, Burnley), Nigel Reo-Coker (midfielder, Aston Villa)

Key departures: Johan Elmander (forward, Galatasary), Matthew Taylor (midfielder, West Ham)

Key man: Chris Eagles. The former Manchester united winger is direct and can deliver a decent cross when he wants.

Blackburn Rovers

Manager: Steve Kean

Last season: 15th.

The club were bought last season by Indian company Venky's with the promise they were going to take on the world. Instead, manager Sam Allardyce was sacked and they just about avoided relegation.

This season: It is difficult to see them doing much better. They need to spend all of the money they got from Liverpool for Phil Jones and then some more.

Key arrivals: David Goodwillie (forward, Dundee United)

Key departures: Zurab Khizanishvili (defender, Kayserispor) Phil Jones (defender, Liverpool)

Key man: Ruben Rochina. Signed in January from Barcelona, the playmaker has the potential to be a top talent.

Wigan Athletic

Manager: Roberto Martinez

Last season: 16th.

They played football the right away and just about managed to stay up on the final day of the season. Wigan never really got going but did just enough.

This season: They have lost Charles N'Zogbia which is a huge blow because there is a lack of depth in the squad. They need to start very well.

Key arrival: Ali Al Habsi (goalkeeper, Bolton)

Key departures: Steven Caldwell (defender, Birmingham), Charles N'Zogbia (midfielder, Aston Villa)

Key man: James McCarthy: The Irish international midfielder was a revelation last season in the centre of midfield. All he needs to add is goals and he will become a topclass player.


Manager: Mick McCarthy

Last season: 17th.

They stayed up by a point in the end of a poor campaign. They looked doomed for much of it, but started to pick up points in the final months.

This season: It will probably be more of the same. There is more experience but it's hard to see where the goals will come from again. A lot will depend on Jamie O'Hara in midfield.

Key arrivals: Jamie O'Hara (midfielder, Tottenham), Roger Johnson (defender, Birmingham)

Key departure: David Jones (Wigan, free)

Key man: Jamie O'Hara. Passed the longest medical in Wolves' history to sign and now his fitness is proven, he will the man McCarthy will, or at least should, build the team around.

Queens Park Rangers

Manager: Neil Warnock

Last season: They won the Championship and survived the threat of a points deduction over uncertainty regarding Adel Taarabt's transfer. They was far from boring and ultimately brilliant.

This season: The London club may have rich people in the boardroom, but they have not exactly been spending this summer. Will do well to stay up.

Key arrivals: Kieron Dyer (forward, West Ham), Jay Bothroyd (forward, Cardiff City), DJ Campbell (forward, Blackpool)

Key departure: Mikele Leigertwood (midfielder, Reading)

Key man: Adel Taarabt: If Warnock can keep his talisman then he will be QPR's best chance of making their mark.

Norwich City

Manager: Paul Lambert

Last season: Second in Championship. An incredible two years saw The Canaries rise from League One to the top flight. Not even director Delia Smith could have seen that coming.

This season: Norwich will do well to stay up. The team is inexperienced at this level and it's going to be a huge task, but this team continue to surprise.

Key arrivals: Ritchie de Laet (defender, Manchester United) James Vaughan (forward, Everton),Kyle Naughton (defender, Tottenham)

Key departures: Matthew Gill (midfielder, Bristol Rovers)

Key man: Grant Holt: The striker at last gets his chance to prove he is a Premier League player.


Manager: Brendan Rodgers

Last season: Promoted via play-offs. The Welsh side were last in England's top tier in 1984 and almost went out of business twice. There was understandable delirium last season.

This season: They will play good football and win a lot of friends. Their big support will be a help as well, but they will be favourites to finish bottom.

Key arrivals: Jose Moreira (goalkeeper, Benfica), Steven Caulker (defender, Tottenham), Leroy Lita (Middlesbrough, forward)

Key departure: Yves Ma-Kalsmbay (goalkeeper, Wolves)

Key man: Scott Sinclair: The former Chelsea man is a class act and will make the midfield tick.

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Published: August 11, 2011 04:00 AM


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