Manchester United and Arsenal Will Resume Their Title Rivalry Next Season
This season in the Premier League, only one team has stood out as consistently strong and capable throughout the entirety of the campaign, and that is Chelsea.
Their win at all costs attitude under Jose Mourinho has seen them accrue the most points, and they sit comfortably atop the table with only a handful of games remaining. Although they are not yet secure in their victory, I think few can begrudge them that honour. It has been a tough year for the club amid claims of unsportsmanlike conduct and the hideous behaviour of a few pea-minded fans in a metro in Paris. And whilst many will argue that they have not exactly won over many purists with their style of play, it has proven extremely effective at grinding out the ideal results.
Chelsea are like going out for a donner kebab in the evening - sure, there are more desirable ways to get yourself fed, but it gets the job done nonetheless.
However, their lofty position at the top of the division has become a great deal more wobbly in 2015, thanks to the rise of two clubs from the ashes. And no, this does not concern Manchester City, who appear to be spiralling in the complete opposite direction, clinging onto the final Champions League spot. No this article concerns the ascension of Manchester United and Arsenal, as they look set to not only push Chelsea to the limit this season against all odds in 2014, but will surely ride this wave of momentum into next season and renew the greatest rivalry in Premier League history.
Manchester United have endured a momentous amount of flak from fans, pundits and footballers in the early months of Louis Van Gaal's regime, and with plenty of evidence supporting their claims. The arrogant Dutchman had a gift for turning the media against him with the manner in which he bullishly defended his ability as a manager, despite his tactics drawing nothing but groans from outsiders, including his own fans. A 3-5-2 formation that appeared to leave his players all at sea and a decidedly long-ball strategy that belied the entertaining methods of Sir Alex Ferguson's reign had many turning their nose up. When your own fans are chanting "Attack! Attack!" at the players in a desperate bid to push them up the field, something was certainly going drastically wrong.
Even I'll admit to being quick to join the bandwagon of those critiquing United. They had a win percentage of 53%, and whilst they ended 2014 in third place, an number of losses and poor performances had earned more recognition. They were winning ugly, not to dissimilar to Chelsea, but it was the fact that so many of their players looked uncomfortable in these new tactics. Chris Smalling, Johnny Evans and Marcus Rojo struggled defensively, and Radamel Falcao had become the most expensive passenger outside of a trip on one of Richard Branson's space shuttles. Whilst Falcao has not changed his tone, 2015 has been a much happier time in the red half of Manchester.
Their win percentage may not have increased much (57%) but it has been the manner of those victories and the quality of the opposition that have been most remarkable. Their last three performances in the league have essentially demonstrated the improvement. Their win over Liverpool at Anfield featured their best first-half performance all season, as they controlled the flow of the game. Although their deadly rivals came back despite being down to ten men, Manchester United still registered a relatively comfortable win. A decimation of Aston Villa was then followed by a triumph that will undoubtedly give them the shot in the arm necessary to push for the title next season. After four painful years, the United fans could finally celebrate a victory over Manchester City at Old Trafford, and it was a sweet, humiliating one at that.
But frankly, should anyone really be surprised that Manchester United are likely to challenge for the Premier League in 2016? They invested over £150 million in their squad over the summer, a sum of money that should on its own be able to build a team that could fight for a Europa League place. Angel Di Maria will likely come back stronger than before following a difficult transition to the rigours of the Premier League, and the players have come to terms with a formation that works well. In David de Gea they have the best goalkeeper in the league, and my personal choice for PFA Player of the Year. Wayne Rooney is showing decisive strength as captain, and leading by example (as long as it doesn't encourage his teammates to don boxing gloves and try to knock each other out in the locker room). But most crucially, players that underperformed or were not utilized last season, such as Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata, Michael Carrick and Phil Jones have stepped up and are playing to the best of their ability.
Moving onto Arsenal, that is a revival that has left many people shocked at their current consistency. As a fan myself, I won't deny the club were in a pretty dire place in the early months of the season. They had won less than half of their games, and were demonstrating that they hadn't shown any improvement in their weakest facet - matches against other top ranked teams. Their spine appeared to be made of glass, as they crumbled to defeats against the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Southampton and Stoke. Injuries went against them, with Olivier Giroud especially a big miss, along with Mathieu Debuchy, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey. Alexis Sanchez remained a glimmer of hope, but it wasn't enough to penetrate the gloom of the fans, who pointed the finger at long-term manager Arsene Wenger. Banners pleading for his departure became as commonplace as wearing an Arsenal shirt to games.
Now? They are the most in-form team in Europe. Shocked? It has been an incredible turnaround in fortunes, as their sensational rise from fifth in the Premier League to second demonstrates. They have won eleven of their last twelve games in the division, including impressive outings against Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool. They have not dropped points since a loss to Tottenham on February 7th, in a run that mirrors their push towards the title in 1998. Their Champions League hopes went up in flames with a devastating home loss to Monaco, demostrating that there is definite room for improvement, but most signs have been utterly positive for Gunners fans in 2015.
Even though Sanchez has arguably cooled from his sensational form at the beginning of the campaign, his work-rate and skill is still keeping opposition teams on their toes. Giroud returned remarkably quickly from a broken leg and has ever since led from the front for Arsenal, with fourteen goals from twenty-one appearances. Sanit Cazorla and Mesut Ozil have dominated the midfield, and Tomas Rosicky has showed that he still has plenty of life left in his career in his cameo role. But, what really bodes well for the future of Wenger's team has been the performances of his young Guns that have taken their strides into the first team. Francis Coquelin is an enforcer in midfield, and Arsenal's defence, often considered it's weakest area, could have a strong future with Gabriel, Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin making a significant impact.
All of these factors and their performances indicate that Manchester United and Arsenal are ready to resume their epic rivalry over the Premier League crown that epitomized the division in the late 1990's and early 2000's. The classic Ferguson/Wenger feud could be restarted, with moments like Sylvain Wiltord winning the title at Old Trafford, the 6-1 destruction of Arsenal, Ruud Van Nistelrooy's penalty miss, and the tunnel bust-up between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira. This rivalry cooled with the rise of Chelsea to the summit, and Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham have also made headway into their midst. But, based on their current form, few would be likely to bet against them continuing it into 2016.
Chelsea and Manchester City among others will improve, so it is definitely not an assured thing. Both Manchester United and Arsenal could do with a summer cleaning of their respective squads. United would likely oust Falcao's drain on their wages, as well as some more dead weight like Adnan Januzaj and Robin Van Persie. Names like Danny Ings and Robert Lewandowski have been batted around as replacements. But, their biggest transfer coup would be retaining the services of de Gea in goal, as he has been perpetually linked with a transfer to Real Madrid since the outset of the season.
As for Arsenal, pundits and fans will continue to play down their championship winning potential until they develop some more bulk in their team. Some would argue, and I would be in agreement, that they have actually made some excellent signings through their youth system that have finally come of age. However, it cannot be denied that Per Mertesacker has been a source of weakness at the heart of the defence, and whilst the first team is a strong unit, cover would always be appreciated. Especially if Theo Walcott does not extend his contract, expect a lot of talk for Julian Draxler and Ilkay Gundongan over the summer window.
However, no matter what, the results have 2015 have demonstrated to me that both Manchester United and Arsenal are assured to have a big impact on the Premier League title race next season. The heated rivalry will be reinvigorated with the pressure of the championship, and both sets of fans can be justified in dreaming of glory again.
Although, there can only be one...