Can one really preview a season before the transfer window has, wait for it, slammed shut? Maybe not, but some themes (and one gigantic shadow / opportunity) can be identified and, well, what else can one write about in mid-August?
This time last year, I was fretting about the defence and I’m still fretting now. Tim Howard may be the biggest name at Team USA after his World Cup heroics against Kevin Mirallas and co, but how many games will he be able to play on top form at his age? I’d like him to sit out the Group Stage of the Europa League giving that job to Joel Robles – but you’ve already identified the flaw in that little ruse.
But that’s not the biggest hole in the squad. Just who is going to play all these games at centre-back? John Stones is too young to play every game at the considerable peak of his powers and can expect to be playing for England too – he only has two legs! Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka are model pros, but they’re both well into their thirties and have played a lot of matches. They won’t be able to shake off the knocks younger men play through – as last season showed. However, at least we have Antolin Alcaraz to step in. Ah…
At full back, Bryan Oviedo provides classy cover, but the high energy game played by both Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines will have to be rationed if they are to produce at both ends of the pitch – we may have got a bit used to their extraordinary performances week-in, week-out.
All is not lost! The midfield looks impressively stocked, particularly with DMs. The Barry-McCarthy axis will be expected to pick up where it left off and the returning Darron Gibson and new boy Muhamed Besic will give them relief when needed. We might also see Gibson dropping in as a central defender, particularly if we have a two goal advantage in the second half.
Up front, much depends on the resilience of Romelu Lukaku, who will also be withdrawn for Steven Naismith as often as possible. If a club of Everton’s means pays that kind of money for a player, much should depend on him. We should not forget his age, if he shows signs of being jaded by the Thursday / Sunday grind, though his transfer fee will surely be mentioned on the 6-0-6 shoutfests if he does go off the boil.
Will the Catalan conjuror pull a rabbit out of the hat, a 20 year-old commanding centre-back, short on game time for Barcelona or Bayern Munich, so on loan at Goodison? It seems doubtful. Will an Academy player step up and bloom? After John Stones’ and Ross Barkley’s breakthrough seasons last time round, that may be asking a little too much.
So whither the Blues in 2014-15? I’d like to have a real go at fourth in the Premier League – we could surely finish ahead of Liverpool and Manchester United, though Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal look too strong. And, if we don’t prioritise the League, I can’t see Louis Van Gaal allowing himself two transitional seasons, and the chance of fourth may be gone for another five years almost before it’s arrived. I fear that the Europa League campaign will impinge on Premier League matches, particularly in the last 15 minutes, and we’ll slip behind those five clubs mentioned above and Tottenham to drift into 7th or 8th, with too many draws at the likes of Palace and Burnley. And then we’ll lose in the semi-finals in Europe and finish the season deflated having played good, but gradually tiring, football.