By Ewan Roberts
The final weeks of the season have been so dominated by fawning over the roll-call of retiring legends, so preoccupied with dewy-eyed reminiscing, that you could be forgiven for thinking the Premier League was on the verge of fading into oblivion. But this clear-out of established pillars ushers in a new, brilliantly unpredictable era.
There has been a dreary inevitability about English football's top flight for so long, a staleness; the teams at the top never change, those at the bottom merely exist, but the raft of changes taking place will create a blank canvas. Three quarters of the so-called "Big Four" will have new managers, while Manchester United's - and, more so, Sir Alex Ferguson's - grip on the Premier League is about to be released.
|MOURINHO'S RECORD AGAINST RIVALS
But this is a different Mourinho. He announced his arrival from Porto with intoxicating self-confidence, the self-styled 'Special One', and a Champions League trophy under his arm. Now he returns weary, chastened by a fraught and unwelcoming stay in Madrid. Once he was all-powerful and all-conquering, now he's a tad vulnerable, cantankerous and paranoid – all of which only heightens his box office value.
The Chelsea he inherits is different too. Good but not great, bursting with creativity but devoid of a world-class, confidence-effused forward, and having tailed off as genuine contenders (picking up 48 fewer points than the title winners over the last three years).
But Mourinho's net spend in his maiden year with the Blues was over £90 million; a similar splurge this summer - and the capture of a star striker - would make them strong title challengers once more. The 50-year-old's organised, solid shape - which produced an astonishing 25 clean sheets in 2004-05 - coupled with the flair and craft of Chelsea's Three Amigos could be a potent and eye-catching combination.
Chelsea's primary challengers will remain the Manchester clubs, who have interchanged at the top of the table for the past two years, though both will undergo major changes this summer. United have lost the greatest club manager of all time, which will hurt them exponentially more than the 4.7 per cent hit their share price took in the first 10 minutes the New York Stock Exchange was open following Sir Alex's retirement announcement.
Replacing him is David Moyes, whose scrupulous reign at Everton on a threadbare budget is a wildly different beast from the expectations and pressures he can expect at Old Trafford. Will United retain their winning edge? Will their attacking football be shelved in favour of more familiar pragmatism? Can the 50-year-old manage a squad bursting with big personalities?
Moyes has no medals to put on the table, no experience of winning championships, and in Mourinho he will be up against an opponent he has never beaten in eight previous encounters (with an aggregate score of 15-6 in favour of the Portuguese).
While Sir Alex was irreplaceable, City boss Roberto Mancini patently was not. The FA Cup finalists stood still under his stewardship, allowing United to soar past them and the rest of the pack to catch up. Mancini blamed a poor summer window, though his flirtation with an unfamiliar back three and numerous management and tactical fumbles certainly did not help.
|SECOND HALF OF 2012-13 SEASON
Somewhat surprisingly, the teams to benefit most from this upheaval and unpredictability could be Arsenal and Tottenham. Both are stable - with Arsene Wenger now the longest-serving manager in the league and Andre Villas-Boas having ridden an early wave of cynicism and reservation - and both have a head-start on their transitions (having recovered from the loss of key players last summer).
Spurs were defeated just twice in 2013 and were the only team other than Real Madrid not to lose against the rampant Red Devils, while Arsenal lost just one match from the end of January onwards, averaging 2.4 points per game - over the course of a season that would produce 92.6 points, enough to win the title.
The north London clubs are improving at a rapid rate, and are both one or two quality signings (especially in the striking department) away from challenging not just for the top four, but the title.
Liverpool are dark horses too, out-scoring all sides in the second half of the season, while Merseyside rivals Everton could be a real force if Roberto Martinez – the likely successor to Moyes – is able to bring fluid attack play to the Scot's pre-existing defensive base, the Wenger to Moyes' George Graham.
2012-13 was not a vintage year for the Premier League – more of a cava than a Champagne – while the most exciting thing to happen during the most recent transfer deadline day was the non-signing of Peter Odemwingie.
But it will be different this year. The top-end competitiveness will ramp up a notch, there is no end of potential narratives and new managers will bring with them an influx of foreign talent as the Premier League landscape is reforged. With that comes a degree of danger, the prospect of instability, but it's liberating – next year will more like a grand national than the two-horse races to which we've grown accustomed. So buckle up, because the times they are a-changing.
Follow Ewan Roberts on