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Why the race for the Premier League title will be much tighter this time round

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From the start of last season it was the widely held view amongst football pundits and fans that Chelsea would run away with the Premier League title and they delivered. The Blues had already won the league with three games to spare, finishing eight points higher than the runners-up; Manchester City. Arsenal were once teetering upon challenging for the title, but it wasn’t long before the Premier League had become, at best, a two-horse race. Meanwhile, Manchester United were adapting to a new philosophy brought by Louis van Gaal, and often had to line-up with an inexperienced defence when plagued with injuries at the back. Also, despite Liverpool’s relatively successful previous season, since they had lost key player Luis Suarez to Barcelona, and Sturridge was suffering from a recurring thigh injury, it was generally regarded that Rodgers’ boys best hope was scraping a Champions League finish. Which, of course, they failed to achieve.

Why were Chelsea so strong last season?

Well, first of all it was clear that Chelsea had been most successful in the transfer market. Finding huge transfer fees for the likes of Brazilian centre-back David Luiz and Belgian centre-forward Romelu Lukaku. This allowed the club to bring in goal machine Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid, and playmaker Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona. Didier Drogba made a return as a Player/Coach, and Loic Remy came in to add to the firepower Mourinho craved up front. However it was not just new players that lead to their domination. They went into the season already having the chance to adapt to Jose’s pragmatic style. Players such as Willian, Oscar and Hazard were beginning to flourish, it was felt that the 2014/15 season was going to be when they were at their best. Also, Matic had settled back into the squad after returning from Benfica, bolstering up The Blues midfield. A well-drilled, familiar and talented squad, Chelsea were always going to be the bookie’s favourites going into the the start of last season.

Why are there doubts that Chelsea can reproduce last season’s domination?

The only transfer activity coming into the club has been in the form of replacements; Begovic for Cech, and Falcao coming in for Drogba. Falcao only managed four goals last season, and although Mourinho has spoken highly of him, some doubt that he is the same player he once was. This means that any improvements made to Chelsea will be through a more cohesive style and individual players growing in ability.

However when other teams are analysed, you see that Petr Cech, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, has signed for Arsenal. Arsenal have also seen vast improvements made in younger players such as Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin. The Gunners have been ridden with injuries in recent seasons and if given a bit of luck, they could offer a serious challenge for the Premier League title.

Manchester United have been highly active in the transfer market so far this summer, and are looking at their most dangerous since Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge at Old Trafford. The likes of Morgan Schneiderlin and world-cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger will provide quality, security and depth to Van Gaal’s midfield. Flair player Memphis Depay has also been brought in, one of Europe’s most exciting young players. Also Matteo Darmian will sure up the defence, an area which required improvement. Provided Di Maria remains at the club by the end of the transfer season, there will be no question that this squad bleeds quality. The Red Devils proved to be very impressive in retaining possession and had began to adapt to the philosophies of Louis Van Gaal. As creativity and defensive security is growing ever stronger, the club will see more goals scored and less conceded. United’s fans can hope for a return to former glory, and may see some Premier League silverware for the first time since they lost their beloved Fergie.

Then we have Manchester City, who were the only threat to Chelsea last season, and the only reason that Mourinho’s side still needed to keep up performances. However, City fans will be less than impressed with their team’s run out last season. Yaya Toure struggled to find previous form. Aguero kept up his reputation for being relatively injury prone, despite squeezing out 26 goals over the course of the season. The Sky Blues just never really felt like they possessed the ability to dominate games all season round. They found it difficult to break down certain defences, for example when they played Stoke at home and despite having the fast majority of possession, couldn’t seem to find the back of the net. They eventually lost 1-0 after Mame Biram Diouf scored after an incredible individual effort. But City will be blood-thirsty in the upcoming season and after having managed to clinch Raheem Sterling from Liverpool and Fabian Delph from Aston Villa amongst others. Energetic English talent has been brought into the club, and it is unlikely to stop there. Pellegrini has been given the go-ahead to spend big this summer, as we are likely to see some of the stars of Europe and elsewhere join the club, City will be backing themselves to match any opponent they might face in the upcoming season.

Liverpool’s chances to make a title bid are, however, doubtful. After losing one of England’s hottest prospects and still failing to properly replace Suarez, I find it hard to believe that they have the firepower to pose a threat to any of the other clubs I have mentioned. Although, they have brought in £20 million plus attacking midfielder Roberto Firmino. Englishmen Milner, Clyne and Ings have also joined the party at Anfield. If The Reds manage to find a star striker, they could go on to prove me wrong.

In conclusion, despite the growing strength of the other clubs in England, this is not to say Chelsea are by any means weak. They are still one of the major forces in European and English football. However, it will definitely be a more competitive Premier League in 2015/16 than it was the previous season. This will only lead to a more entertaining, nail-biting and dramatic close in to see who claims the throne come May.

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Arsenal

Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech

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Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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Arsenal

Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Vitality Stadium

Rob Meech

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Bournemouth
Photo: Reuters

Bournemouth came from behind to claim a much-needed victory over Arsenal, whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League have suffered another blow.

After an insipid opening period at the Vitality Stadium, the action sparked into life when Hector Bellerin broke the deadlock on 52 minutes.

But Arsenal’s lead was short-lived, as goals from Callum Wilson and Jordon Ibe – his first for the club – secured the Cherries’ fourth home win of the season, which lifted them to 13th in the table.

Arsenal, meanwhile, slipped further adrift in the battle to finish in the top four after their third consecutive league game without a win. Here are three talking points…

Alexis Sanchez moves closer to the Emirates exit door

All the pre-match talk centred on a player who wasn’t involved in the contest. Not only was Alexis Sanchez not named in the starting XI, he wasn’t even on the bench having not travelled to the south coast.

Manager Arsene Wenger was ambiguous when pressed on this in the aftermath of the defeat, but the insinuation was clear; the want-away Chilean will not be an Arsenal player come the end of the transfer window.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United have been heavily linked with a move for Sanchez, whose contract at the Emirates expires in the summer. Despite his uncertain future, this match was crying out for his never-say-die attitude.

Arsenal controlled the first half and deserved to be in front when Bellerin fired home. However, the Gunners were unable to add a second and Bournemouth capitalised with two late efforts. Arsene Wenger’s side are now without a win in four games in 2018 as their troubles mount.

Bournemouth buck the trend against the ‘Big Six’

Before this fixture, Bournemouth had lost all of their matches against the ‘Big Six’ this season, scoring only one goal in seven outings.

While those are not necessarily the games that will define their campaign, it was a worrying statistic that Eddie Howe needed to address. Facing an Arsenal team without Sanchez or Mesut Ozil looked like being the Cherries’ best opportunity to buck that trend, and so it proved.

With only nine points separating all the teams in the bottom half, an unexpected win can do so much to alter the picture. The Cherries didn’t fold after going a goal behind and they merited the three points for an enterprising second-half display.

Having beaten Arsenal for the first time in their history, Bournemouth are now four points clear of the drop-zone. They are by no means safe because of this result, but the psychological impact could be immense.

Jack Wilshere getting back to his best

Returning to the club at which he spent last season on loan, this was not the afternoon Jack Wilshere would have hoped for. Though it didn’t go well from a team perspective, the 26-year-old was close to his best at the Vitality Stadium.

He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch and also completed more passes. After a frustrating start to the campaign where he struggled for minutes in the Premier League, Wilshere is now establishing himself in the starting XI.

He was Arsenal’s best player against Bournemouth and in a team that lacks leaders, he was one of the few who looked like he wanted the ball. Wilshere ran the show in midfield and was always keen to move forward with purpose.

England manager Gareth Southgate surely can’t ignore Wilshere’s form and, fitness permitting, he must be a shoo-in for the next squad. In a World Cup year, Wilshere is peaking at just the right time.

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An absence of progress at Arsenal leaves Arsene Wenger in danger of becoming the villain

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Reuters

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

So says Harvey Dent, a character in the 2008 DC Comics action movie The Dark Night Rises, which portrays the story of the fictional superhero Batman as he fights against organised crime in Gotham City.

There may be no men dressed as bats around the Emirates Stadium but it is a quote that might resonate with the thoughts and feelings of a growing number of Arsenal supporters regarding the position of Arsene Wenger in recent seasons.

The Frenchman is one of the most influential and successful managers in the club’s history, having secured ten major trophies since his appointment in 1996 and overseen the transition from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, but has come under increasing pressure over the last three seasons as The Gunners struggle to maintain the pace set by their title rivals.

The previous campaign was tainted by calls from from a portion of the Arsenal fan base for the 68-year-old to resign, although the club eventually opted to hand him a new two-year deal.

However, eight months on  and Wenger’s position has never been more fragile and the number of dissenting voices in the stands is beginning to increase.

The frustration around the Emirates Stadium is completely understandable. The Gunners are 23 points behind league leaders Manchester City, face an uphill task to qualify for the Champions League next season and suffered an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Nottingham Forrest.

Furthermore, Arsenal are in danger of losing two of their prize assets in the summer for nothing after allowing the contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to run down into their final year. The unwillingness of the duo to remain in North London is a definitive sign that the club are no longer considered to be a significant threat in the domestic game.

With the club slipping behind their title rivals and struggling to retain key players, Wenger is in danger of turning from a hero into a villain.

A lack of forward momentum

The one thing that Arsenal have lacked this season, and arguably for a number of years, is a sense that the club is making progress or moving in the right direction.

The Gunners have been on a gradual decline that is only now beginning to come to the fore and there has been nothing to suggest that Arsene Wenger has the vision or prowess to reinvigorate a club that is anchored in stagnation. Even success in the FA Cup has felt like a brief moment of respite rather than a signal that a corner had been turned.

The Frenchman has failed to correct the issues that have undermined the team on the pitch, exemplified by his inability to purchase a top-quality central defender or defensive midfielder, and it has now been nearly thirteen years since the club last won the Premier League title.

A sense of progress is why Jurgen Klopp and Mauriccio Pochettino have sustained their positions at Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, despite failing to secure any silverware between them and have retained the favour of their club’s supporters.

Both have implemented a clear philosophy and playing style whilst creating the feeling around Anfield and Wembley that the team is moving forward in the right direction.

Wenger has secured more silverware than both Klopp and Pochettino combined since 2014 yet he finds himself under increasing pressure due to a lack of any forward momentum at the Emirates Stadium.

Whilst there is a general feeling that Liverpool and Tottenham are improving, the perception of many Arsenal supporters is that the club is standing still at best and certainly slipping behind their counterparts.

There have been question marks around Wenger’s future for some time and yet this feels like the 68-year-old is on the edge of cliff.

Success in the FA Cup has provided him with a degree of respite in recent years which made his team selection for the defeat to Nottingham Forrest appear especially bizarre.

With Arsenal already out of the title race you would have thought that Wenger would have put extra emphasis on winning the competition which, arguably, allowed him to negotiate a new contract in the summer.

However, such is the obvious disparity in quality between the Gunners and Manchester City that Wenger can no longer hide behind domestic cup success.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League for a second consecutive year would signify how far the club has fallen and the pressure on the Frenchman has been further exacerbated by the seemingly imminent departures of Sanchez and Ozil.

Whilst Liverpool and Tottenham are moving forward, Arsenal seem to be moving backwards. With Wenger’s position appearing increasingly fragile and the club in decline you have to wonder whether the Frenchman has now become the villain of the piece.

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