Column - All EPL needs are the players
IF ever a match was emblematic of an entire league, it was the 94 minutes of nearly but not quite classic football at the Etihad yesterday. Like the Mancunian weather, it was rain and shine, hit and horrible miss, gradually making it from merely absorbing to downright compelling.
But all the time, you felt the numbers were rising: the fees that Premier League clubs will have to pay for new recruits in the summer and the number of players on both sides who won't be there next season. Those who are nearly, but not quite, good enough.
Like their rival also-rans in what was once a title race, Manchester City and Liverpool need not a touch-up but major reconstruction just to challenge Chelsea let alone Europe's bigger battalions. And the irony is that the two managers who are supposed to improve players the most are the ones who need the most.
The bad news for Liverpool is that they have vastly different budgets. Where City can still cling to the faint hope of getting Messi, the Fenway Group prefer to shop in the pasar malam and dream of emulating Monaco. Jurgen Klopp will get the best out of players but he can't always find diamonds in the stalls. Pep Guardiola, of course, will be shopping at Harrod's.
It is a testimony to the coaching abilities of both that they've got such makeshift outfits to the top four, especially when you look at their defences. But improvements can only go so far and at this level you need better than odd-job men like Fernandinho and James Milner filling in at full-back. Or nearly-but-not-quite-good-enough centrebacks like Ragnar Klavan and Nicolas Otamendi.
Spurs, most definitely, and even Arsenal and Manchester United have better defenders than either of those back lines whose mistakes contributed hugely to the entertainment in the early hours of Monday morning.
City and Liverpool both need completely new rearguards including top-class goalkeepers. Midfield was also lacking although respective key cogs, Ilkay Gundogan and Jordan Henderson, were both missing. But to take on the Big Boys, you feel that both sides need another ball winner.
Up front, they are closer to the quality required but there are still question marks. Philippe Coutinho has not been the same player for Liverpool since his injury and without him running the game, the Reds offer nothing like the same threat.
Adam Lallana has also failed to recapture his early season brilliance and yesterday's miss took him into Ronnie Rosenthal territory. Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum do not do enough and Sadio Mane is often left to fend for himself.
City will be able to welcome back Gabriel Jesus whose loss has been a severe blow after such an electrifying start. No one creates and misses more chances than City. But Raheem Sterling, for all the improvement Pep has brought, is still too much of a headless chicken to be a top-class star. Leroy Sane is similarly reliant on pace and trickery and can look lightweight in the best company.
With Joe Hart gone, Vincent Kompany surely going as well as Yaya Toure – too slow and ineffectual by half yesterday – the old City guard could all be gone by the end of next season. Even David Silva and Kun Aguero are not quite what they were although Pep would be crazy to give either the Joe Hart treatment.
City and Liverpool may sit above United and Arsenal in the table, but in terms of sheer numbers, their summer turnover of players is likely to be higher. United and Arsenal both have top keepers for a start as well as better full-backs. Indeed, Hector Bellerin is wanted by Pep!
The Gunners' greatest need in terms of personnel will be to replace Alexis Sanchez unless a new manager can persuade him to stay. Their other great need is motivation which may not be easily solved if Arsene Wenger is to stay.
United have been let down by Paul Pogba whose intermittent cameos are not what was expected of the world's most expensive player. They need someone to command midfield as Roy Keane did when he came from Forest for a British record fee in 1992.
There was much more than five second bursts at 20 minute intervals from the Irishman. For £89 million (RM490 million), there are no two ways about it – Pogba has been a flop. How to deal with him is probably keeping Jose Mourinho awake at night.
Like City, they also need another striker. Antoine Griezmann looked the ideal man who could be a perfect foil for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his successor as talisman when the big Swede bows out. But the chances of the Frenchman arriving appear to have dwindled.
Chelsea meanwhile perhaps need two or three players to slot into Antonio Conte's smooth-running machine before they can think about winning a second Champions League trophy. Spurs need two or three before they can win the English League – a deputy for Harry Kane being top priority.
Even through the most rose-tinted specs, you cannot see any of these teams becoming European champions next season. What you can see is a huge spending spree in the summer transfer window led by City and another hugely entertaining season to follow.
But unless recruitment is a good deal more successful than last summer, the Premier League will remain the most exciting league in the world but not the best. The managers are in place, the money is there: all they need now are the players.