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Marcotti: A tournament to remember

World Cup Jul 14, 2014
Read
 Posted by Gabriele Marcotti
Aug 15, 2014

Premier League storylines for 2014-15

The ESPN FC panel preview the upcoming Premier League season and note what they're looking forward to.

Last year was a voyage into uncharted waters. Never before had three of the previous season's top four changed managers. This campaign promises to be about consolidation and building on the foundation erected over the previous 12 months, at least for the three clubs who battled it out for the title in 2013-14: Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.

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Making what you have better

Manuel Pellegrini spent big in his first season in charge and delivered the Premier League crown. Partly because of the club's financial fair play settlement, partly because much of his squad still has another level to go, it was a quiet summer by City standards.

Edin Dzeko and Manuel Pellegrini will look to rekindle the magic that took them all the way to the Premier League title in 2013-14.

That makes sense. Pellegrini was, in many ways, still learning his way around the English game, even as he delivered the title. Now, in his sophomore season, he'll be expected to refine his philosophy further and build on the know-how gained last year. What's more, there are plenty of guys you can legitimately expect more from in 2014-15, whether they are no longer newcomers to the league (Jesus Navas, Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo); or because they struggled with injuries (Sergio Aguero, Matija Nastasic); or both (Stevan Jovetic).

It could well turn out that none of the half-dozen newcomers establish themselves as starters -- Eliaquim Mangala, the priciest signing at $53 million, is still somewhat raw and there's no need to rush him -- and that's just fine. City have added depth in goal (Willy Caballero); at the back (Bacary Sagna, Mangala); and in the middle of the park (Frank Lampard, Bruno Zuculini, Fernando) without breaking the bank or needing to fiddle with an established lineup.

The post-Suarez era

Over at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers is entering his third season with Liverpool. But it was only last year that his side found its identity on the pitch and challenged for the title. Soon, we'll know to what degree last year's exploits were down to Luis Suarez's heroics and to what degree it was Rodgers' system.

Swapping your bona-fide superstar for a gaggle of gifted up-and-comers may be logical on paper, but it can certainly be a tricky strategy to implement. Witness Tottenham post-Gareth Bale. The club has gone beyond simply reinvesting the Suarez cash, however, chucking in an extra $50 million-plus so that the total spend approaches $200 million. That commitment shows not just the faith Rodgers earned last year, but also the belief that the owners want to win straightaway. That's good news for Steven Gerrard, since he's not getting any younger.

In many ways, the key could be Daniel Sturridge. For a long time it was felt he could thrive only as a lone striker, then, placed alongside Suarez, he continued to excel. Now he could be a solo act once again. How he responds -- and how well Rodgers fits the pieces around him to ensure regular service -- will go a long way toward determining whether Liverpool can compete for the title.

How Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge, left, operates without Luis Suarez and the way Diego Costa fits in up front for Chelsea will go a long way in deciding their respective teams' fortunes in the upcoming Prem campaign.

In his image

Call it the Mourinh-ification of Chelsea. Or, if you prefer, the re-Mourinh-ification. For all the perceived bluster, season one of the "Special One's" return saw him work with players he hadn't chosen and who didn't fit his vision. David Luiz and Juan Mata were the obvious examples, and now they're both gone. Most of all, though, Mourinho had a side built to play possession, when he favors transition and counterattacking.

Twelve months later, the last traces of his predecessors have been eradicated and he's surgically added guys who fit what he wants to do: the ferociously intense Diego Costa up front; the pinpoint passer Cesc Fabregas in the middle; the hard-running, physical Filipe Luis at left-back. He brought back Didier Drogba, not just for old times' sake, but to provide leadership and muscle off the bench. And, just as there was in 2004-05 when he won his first Premier League title, there's a hyper-gifted young keeper in Thibaut Courtois ready to unseat the veteran starter. This time around, if Chelsea come up short, it won't be because they haven't given the manager the tools.

Expectations are high for Louis van Gaal and Manchester United this season. Real Premier League success will require every ounce of the Dutch manager's tactical genius.

Genius at work

Having failed to provide Sir Alex Ferguson a suitable heir with the collapse of the David Moyes experiment, Manchester United have gone in an entirely different direction altogether: simply get the best possible coach available and figure out the rest later. Louis van Gaal is, simply put, a genius, albeit one with a baggage-load of caveats, concerns and warning signs.

His efforts with the Netherlands at the World Cup confirmed his ability to take a generally unremarkable bunch to great heights. But it's still surprising that, with the season upon us, Van Gaal will be expected to outshine Moyes (and not just by a little) with only two new signings: Luke Shaw (whose fitness Van Gaal questioned right away) and Ander Herrera (who was meant to join a year ago).

More talent could be on its way soon. In the meantime, Van Gaal is pushing the kids, as he has done most places he's been. With decorated veterans such as Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic out of the picture, it's no longer about continuity with the Sir Alex era, but rather a fresh start.

Penny-pinchers no more

After years of being criticized for not dipping into the club's massive cash reserves and being obsessed with "value signings," Arsene Wenger has, for the second straight season, spent big. Having picked up Mesut Ozil from Cristiano Ronaldo's supporting cast last summer, he has now turned to Alexis Sanchez, one of Lionel Messi's backup singers. Yet another talented attacking midfielder on a team that already has plenty: Ozil, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott. He also picked up two offensive-minded fullbacks: Calum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy. Necessary signings perhaps, talented players for sure, but again, very much Wenger "types."

Santi Cazorla is one of many talented attacking midfielders Arsene Wenger has to choose from for his regular starting XI.

Meanwhile, what his critics consider to be the perennial problem areas -- defensive midfield, depth at centre-forward and centre-back -- remain somewhat unaddressed. But it's the Wenger way, the formula that has made the Gunners perpetual top-four material. The difference is that in the past he did it on the cheap. Now it's costing real money.

Mauricio Pochettino, left, captured lightning in a bottle last year at Southampton. Can he do the same as Tim Sherwood's replacement at White Hart Lane?

Time to produce

A year ago, Tottenham made a strategic decision. They would spend the Gareth Bale windfall on a group of players with an upside, a crew who could grow together and contribute more than the Welshman did in his player of the year campaign. It did not work out that way for a variety of reasons, from injury to managerial instability (even after Andre Villas-Boas was acrimoniously let go, his replacement, Tim Sherwood, came under fire almost straightaway).

Does it mean most of the "Magnificent Seven" are duds? To some, perhaps, but the club is giving most another shot, which is why it has been a very quiet summer on the transfer front, apart from the arrival of Ben Davies, who finally gives the team a legitimate left-back, allowing Jan Vertonghen to slot back inside. A lot of reputations are riding on this crop of players, and new boss Mauricio Pochettino will be expected to make them click. If he succeeds straightaway -- and, to be fair, he did hit the ground running at Southampton -- decisions made in the summer of 2013 will be vindicated. If not, heads may roll. Though, typically, not that of club chairman Daniel Levy.

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