The English Premier League returns this week. After a summer of intrigue and lavish spending of the likes we’ve never seen before, the two Mancunian clubs – Manchester United and Manchester City – have emerged as most pundits’ favorites to lift the title nine months from now.
United boss Jose Mourinho has augmented his squad with a few smart signings this summer. The Red Devils pipped Chelsea for the signature of Romelu Lukaku. The burly Belgian striker joined from Everton for around $97M and will lead the line for United this season. Lukaku is a proven Premier League goalscorer and his holdup play will help create chances for the likes of Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Man U’s other key signing was the acquisition of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea. The Serbian midfield enforcer joined for a fee of around $52M and is expected to lend steel to the center of the park. More importantly, Matic will help free up last summer’s record signing, Paul Pogba.
The French midfielder had a mixed first season at Old Trafford. Weighed down by a then record transfer fee (that’s since been dwarfed by PSG’s $260M acquisition of Neymar from Barcelona), Pogba was seen to underperform last season and at times, it seemed unclear what his role was in Mourinho’s system.
With Matic onboard to do the hard tackling and ball winning, Pogba will be freed up to assume more of the playmaking role he prospered in when he was at Juventus.
Despite last season’s sixth-place finish, United will again compete in the Champions League, thanks to winning the Europa League back in May. But this is a team that seems designed to win the Premier League. Big, strong and powerful, but with silky, quality players like Pogba and Ander Herrera, this is a United side with no reason to fear any team in the league.
If there are questions to be asked, you could look to defense. But Mourinho’s likely starting back four – Antonio Valencia, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Daily Blind – have their faults, they have the added confidence of knowing that in David De Gea, they have perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world standing behind them.
Oh, and there’s another thing. This will be Mourinho’s second season in charge at Old Trafford. One of the consistent patterns we’ve seen in the Portuguese tactician’s career is that he tends to win titles in his second season (and often, get fired in his third).
Watch Manchester United’s season opener against West Ham United on Sunday, August 13 at 11:00 a.m. EST on NBC Sports.
In his first season at Man City, manager Pep Guardiola went trophy-less for the first time in his managerial career. In the process he discovered that many of the players in his squad were virtually incapable of playing the refined, highly technical style he perfected at Barça and Bayern Munich.
It’s unsurprising then that there’s been a wholesale clear out at City this summer. Fernando, Kelechi Iheanacho, Aleksandar Kolarov and Nolito are gone. In the incoming department, we’ve seen Benjamin Mendy (52M from Monaco), Kyle Walker (45M Tottenham), Bernardo Silva (43M Monaco), Ederson (35M Benfica) and Danilo (27M Real Madrid).
With a high-caliber attack led by the likes of Sergio Aguero, Jesus Gabriel and Kevin De Bruyne, it was the defense that needed the biggest overhaul. In Walker, Danilo and Mendy, Guardiola has a trio of the kind of attacking full-backs his system requires. Players with pace who can make overlapping runs and cross the ball into the danger zone for the likes of David Silva, De Bruyne and the strikers up top.
Guardiola also looks to have found a solution to his problem at goalkeeper with the addition of Brazilian net-minder, Ederson.
If there is a weakness to be discerned, and it’s not clear there is, it’s that Guardiola’s starting 11 is still centered around the aging Yaya Toure and the aging and injury-prone Vincent Kompany. There are also questions about the Catalan’s tactical inflexibility. Guardiola’s “we don’t do tackles,” attack at all cost ethos hurt City at times last season.
While the Citizens have been impressive in preseason – beating Real Madrid 4-1 and Tottenham 3-0 – Guardiola may have to adapt his tactics slightly if City are to make good on the bookmakers’ odds that have them as slight favorites to pip United to the title.
Watch Manchester City’s Premier League opener against promotion outfit Brighton & Hove Albion, Saturday, August 12 at 12:30 p.m. on NBC.