Assuming everybody is fit, we look at the starting XIs and benches of the four title favourites. It’s no wonder Manchester City are odds against. Phwoar. They have two strong XIs…
MANCHESTER CITY (1/2 for the title)
Starting XI: Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Otamendi, Kolarov; Toure, Fernandinho; De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling; Aguero.
The bench: Caballero, Mangala, Sagna, Delph, Navas, Nasri, Bony.
No room for: Demichelis, Clichy, Fernando, Iheanacho.
Assuming the £32m Nicolas Otamendi will eventually replace the £44m Eliaquim Mangala, that’s a bench that has cost around £125m to assemble. Phwoar. If the dream squad has two players in every position, City have left themselves short absolutely nowhere. Paul Merson said last week that Kevin de Bruyne was a ‘player they don’t really need’ but he was clearly thinking with his Arsenal hat on; De Bruyne is patently an upgrade on Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri, and upgrading is what you do when you want to regain the title. It’s also what you do when you want to retain the title, something Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and potentially Jose Mourinho know only too well.
There is an argument for saying that they have lost striker strength in depth with the exits of Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic, but Manuel Pellegrini has shown a willingness to blood Kelechi Iheanacho (who will surely get his chance in domestic cup competitions) while Raheem Sterling was clearly instructed to get beyond Sergio Aguero when Watford were proving difficult to break down last week. This is a squad without flaws.
Starting XI: Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Cazorla; Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez; Giroud.
The bench: Ospina, Gabriel, Debuchy, Welbeck, Wilshere, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain
No room for: Chambers, Gibbs, Flamini, Arteta, Rosicky, Campbell.
There is certainly no lack of numbers at Arsenal. Even assuming the absence of three/four first-team players who have had their numbers pulled out of the Arsenal injury tombola dustbin, there is a queue of credible not-quites to take their place. Unless it’s Francis Coquelin who gets injured. Or Olivier Giroud. Coquelin’s back-up is nominally Mikel Arteta – looking every one of his 33 years – while Arsene Wenger can choose to replace Giroud with one of Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez or Joel Campbell. That’s a four-strong list of players who look better elsewhere. In Campbell’s case, that ‘elsewhere’ is not Villarreal, where he scored once in 15 La Liga games on loan last season.
Despite that uninspiring list of striker options, it’s in defensive midfield where Arsenal look shortest. And not just because Coquelin is only 5ft 10ins. Last season, their win percentage with the Frenchman was 69.2%, contrasting with 37.5% in his absence. To anybody else but Wenger, that would be a clear indication that deputies Arteta and Mathieu Flamini were in dire need of an upgrade. To Wenger, it just means that he has been proved right about Coquelin. If anything happens to him, Arsenal fans need to hope that Cohesion can do a job there.
Starting XI: Courtois; Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta; Matic, Fabregas; Pedro, Willian, Hazard; Costa.
The bench: Begovic, Zouma, Rahman, Mikel, Ramires, Oscar, Falcao.
No room for: Djilobodji, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy, Remy, Traore.
How did the champions end up with a weaker squad than a team that finished third and only bought one goalkeeper? As repeated ad infinitum on these pages, it was always incredibly optimistic to believe that the same 13/14 players who won Chelsea the Premier League could deliver the same level of performance (and initial fitness) again. To a man, the outfield players look worse this season. And Jose Mourinho’s options to replace them are massively underwhelming. Would any of the seven players listed above displace those on the Manchester City substitutes’ bench?
“I cannot say I had 11 players at the same time performing. To be fair, two-three of them, individual performance far from good,” said Jose Mourinho after losing to Crystal Palace. He was being kind by stopping at two-three. But when he looked towards the bench to make changes, he saw two 19-year-olds, a 21-year-old and John Obi Mikel alongside Radamel Falcao and Loic Remy. At that point he might well have said ‘get me John Stones and Paul Pogba’; he got Michael Hector and Papy Djilobodji. And with that the title was pretty much conceded.
MANCHESTER UNITED (16/1)
Starting XI: De Gea; Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Shaw; Carrick, Schneiderlin; Martial, Mata, Depay; Rooney.
The bench: Romero, Jones, Valencia, Schweinsteiger, Herrera, Fellaini, Young.
No room for: Valdes, Rojo, McNair, Wilson, Lingard, Perreira.
When Swansea went 2-1 up against Manchester United and the Reds desperately needed a goal, Louis van Gaal changed one deep-lying midfielder for another, and one wide midfielder for another. He then took off the diminutive Ander Herrera and brought on the height of Marouane Fellaini. Even if he were allowed ten substitutes, Sam Johnstone would probably have climbed off the bench to replace Sergio Romero and Wayne Rooney would have still have been stood up front with hands on meaty hips.
A week later, £36m has been spent and it’s difficult to argue that Manchester United have greatly improved their starting XI. What they have done is potentially improve their bench, though there is still a complete absence of a game-changer, with Fellaini the obvious option if they want the game to be changed to the detriment of the viewing public. There is a massive weakness at centre-half (they have five and none of them would make City’s first team) and one at centre-forward. And that is why they are currently 16/1.