New signings – new dilemmas. It’s barely July and we already know that some Premier League coaches will have a few headaches about selection next season. With so much money flying around, even the former ‘big’ signings aren’t necessarily safe. It’s time to check who’s getting straight into those starting XIs and who’ll have to content himself with a place on the bench:
Bernardo Silva vs Raheem Sterling
In two weeks, it will be the second anniversary of what’s once been thought to become Manchester City’s permanent solution to their right-wing problems. The hectic summer of 2015 saw them signing Raheem Sterling from Liverpool for 49 million pounds. It was an outrageous price paid for a talented, young winger, but considering the player’s potential and the sheikhs’ indifference to gambling a lot of money on the market – it might have been a reasonable choice anyway. To be fair to Sterling: he did deliver a fair share of goods during the following 716 days at his new club. He scored his first-ever professional hat-trick and had a cracking start to the 2016/17 season, crowned by the Player of the Month accolade.
And yet, now he’s here. By the end of the last campaign, his potential starting spot down the left side of the pitch has been hijacked by impressive performances of Leroy Sane. Today, with Monaco’s superstar Bernardo Silva joining the MCFC payroll, Sterling’s prospects on the other side of the pitch are looking equally grim. It’s the Portuguese, who had far more impact on his team’s results in the last 12 months; it’s the Portuguese, who’s won the direct clash with his new teammate in probably the most exciting Champions League tie in years. When Silva was on a mercurial rise, Sterling stagnated; for instance, the last two months of 2016 saw him providing just one offside goal and two assists in fifteen club appearances.
In December, Sterling will be turning 23. As much as we all thought the multi-million transfer to City will be a defining moment of his career – that moment is approaching now, when his new squad rival arrives in town and Citizens don’t have any more excuses to justify their lack of silverware. In terms of impactfulness, the former Brendan Rodgers’ protegee has already fallen behind Sané, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. Will he finally get rid of the erratic inconsistency in his play or will he just turn into another ‘most expensive sub in the world’?
Prediction: Silva benches Sterling – at least until the usual injury problems sneak in.
Mohamed Salah vs Sadio Mané
It took him 30 months, but he finally made it. After two and a half season in Italy, Mohamed Salah has returned to England – this time, in a different club and in a different role. At Chelsea, he’s always been merely a placeholder, making just 13 Premier League apps in two seasons and scoring twice. The fact that one of those goals came in an impressive, 6-0 trashing of Arsenal, didn’t help him; minute-wise, he only played six full league matches on the British soil and always hung around in the shades of either Willian or André Schürrle – ironically, the two players, whose EPL stature either didn’t exist or massively dropped this year, while their Egyptian colleague was performing wonders for AS Roma.
Normally, a 15-goal and 11-assist Serie A loot under one’s belt would’ve been enough for any player to make Liverpool’s starting eleven. Normally. However: this year, The Reds have been blessed by the explosion of Sadio Mané’s form – and the Senegalese forward plays in exactly the same role Salah perfected at Rome. Whenever the former Southampton star was fit, he’s been instrumental to LFC’s success, and when the AFCON call-up happened, his club immediately lost a lot of momentum. Two months older than his new Egyptian teammate, Mané has infinitely more Premier League experience and would’ve probably matched Salah’s seasonal records – if only he didn’t miss eleven games while in Gabon or in a physio room.
So why has Jürgen Klopp brought such an expensive replacement to his star player anyway? The answers lies in the circumstances of Liverpool’s April win at Stoke. Torn between the need for a good result and the need to rest his top players, the German boss fielded Ben Woodburn, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Divock Origi ahead of Coutinho and Firmino. The youngsters all failed to score and their team had to make a tedious, second-half comeback from 0-1 down. With Salah available for selection, this might not repeat – but it’s Mané, who has an upper hand here.
Prediction: Mané benches Salah – or forces him to play in a different role.
Victor Lindelöf vs Phil Jones
Just when Red Devils are struggling to find a suitable replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimović and boasting the second-best defensive record in the Premier League – Jose Mourinho is signing another centre-back. 23-years old Victor Lindelof will now join the long line of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Phil Jones, all waiting for a permanent starting spot in the two-man heart of Manchester United’s defence. The Swede has a massive, 31-million pound fee on his side as well as the reputation of tenacity earned both at Benfica and his national team. To top it all off, his pass accuracy last season remained firmly set at the 90 percent mark, making him even more precious asset for MU.
Alas – he’ll still have to fight a long battle to become United’s regular. Even with Chris Smalling being on the verge of leaving Manchester, the Europa League winners have more than enough defensive options. It’s only the influx of injuries that deprived Mourinho from a tough choice who to trust at the end of the last season – and now, with Bailly, Jones and Rojo all back to fitness, the rivalry should be tighter than ever. The ex-Villarreal lad seems like a #1 choice on a teamsheet after his terrific displays prior to the 2017 knee problems. This means that the main race to be his partner could happen between Lindelöf and the man once tipped by his Portuguese manager to become MUFC legend – Phil Jones.
The outcome of this competition is far from clear. Out of Jones’ 26 appearances in the red shirt last season, only the games against Bournemouth and Arsenal have left the fans questioning his ability; at the same time, he was pretty much flawless in such difficult fixtures like a 1-0 win over Tottenham (6 clearances, 3 interceptions, 3 tackles won, 3 aerials won) and a home, 1-1 draw with Liverpool (10 clearances, 3 interceptions, 2 tackles won, 7 aerials won). Matching this could prove tricky for the new recruit.
Prediction: Lindelöf benches Jones – the latter features in the cup matches, though.
Sead Kolašinac vs Nacho Monreal
Last season wasn’t the most fortunate time for Arsenal defenders. Aside from a humiliating 2-10 massacre from the hands of Bayern, every single individual in Wenger’s back-four was struggling at some point: Laurent Koscielny with injuries; Gabriel and Shkodran Mustafi with some embarrassing errors; Héctor Bellerín with proving that there’s more to him than just pace and ugly hairstyles. In view of this, Nacho Monreal, previously scapegoated as the weak link in AFC’s setup, came off as an outlet of consistency, featuring in no less than 43 games across all competitions, out of which 40 have been the full, 90-minute stints. His 2016/17 heroics have been underlined by a key equalizer scored in an FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City.
Still: that didn’t stop Wenger from searching for new options. The end of season saw Nacho featuring as a part of Arsenal’s new 3-4-3 setup, in which he’d assume the wing-back duty. Though by no means a failure, it didn’t really produce as much of a positive change as the team would hope to receive. At the same time, in Gelsenkirchen, Sead Kolašinac was having the best season of his career, delivering memorable performances against such strong opponents as Gladbach, Bayern Munich and Ajax. The Bosnian player made it into Bundesliga’s Team of the Season and was the league’s tenth-best player in terms of intercepting the ball (did it 78 times, despite playing out wide). To get such a player on a free transfer – that’s a bargain.
On paper, he and Monreal are now rivals; in reality though, there might be room for both of them at the Emirates’ pitch, as the Bosnian appears to be much more gifted wing-back and his Basque colleague has a job opening alongside Mustafi and Koscielny, in his own third. Another idea would be utilizing Kolašinac’s attacking potential by playing him as a proper winger in a standard 4-2-3-1 formation, where Monreal could switch back to his favourite full-back role. And finally: there’s the slim chance of Nacho’s homecoming, as Athletic Bilbao seems to be interested in his services. At any rate: Gunners’ left flank seems good to go.
Prediction: noone benches anyone – Monreal plays in a back three; Kolašinac – as a wing-back.
Davy Klaassen vs Ross Barkley
For weeks, it seemed that this duel cannot and will not happen. As Everton’s representatives were working out the details of Klaasen’s move, Barkley was determined to leave Everton for some other Premier League club. During that time, he’d repeatedly refuse to sign a new contract with Toffees and delete his Instagram account filled with photos of him playing for the blue shirt. He’d also get heavily linked with Tottenham – to the point where bookies rated his White Hart Lane transfer odds as 5/1. Only Thomas Lemar (Monaco) and youngster Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham, already extended his current contract) seemed more likely to show up at Mauricio Pochettino’s summer boot camp in United States.
Today, Barkley’s transfer is in doubt. Even without him, Spurs have all their attacking midfield options covered and their potential target from Goodison Park is nowhere near the footballing ability of Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen, who’d be his main squad rivals in North London. To make things worse, the man in question just had a really poor season, scoring only five goals and providing eight assists in 36 league appearances. Compared to Klaassen, who’s been scoring important goals in Champions League qualifiers, Europa League, Netherlands’ internationals and Eredivisie – Barkley’s position in Ronald Koeman’s squad looks precarious, at best. All things considered – didn’t he simply overplay the ‘I’m leaving for a better club’ card?
Well – regardless of the answer to that question, his squad rival definitely has the edge here. Leading Ajax to the UEL final, scoring twice against Schalke, being involved in 43 Eredivisie goals in 63 games, being Koeman’s compatriot and a hand-picked player… Every single ace card is up his sleeve. The only catch here is that should 4-3-3 formation still reign supreme at Everton, Klaasen and Barkley could still potentially get to play together – one as a central midfielder, one as either Number Ten or a False Nine. But the Englishman’s departure remains far more likely: recently, he’s been linked with with Championship winners Newcastle United.
Prediction: Barkley leaves Everton – or he stays and watches Klaassen from the bench.