Man United must improve quality; Chelsea have gone backwards
Manchester United and Chelsea have won 18 Premier League titles between them but, with Manchester City 16 points clear at the top, it looks as though second is the best for which they can hope this season.
Ahead of their meeting at Old Trafford on Sunday, we asked bloggers Scott Patterson (United) and Mark Worrall (Chelsea) to assess the state of their club.
What mark would you give your club this season?
Patterson: 7/10. That could quickly change, however, given United are second in the league and still competing for two trophies. The quality of football now doesn't match the opening months of the season but they'll be alright if they can buck that trend. Play as they have done over the past few weeks, though, and they'll be in trouble.
Worrall: 6/10. Chelsea have failed to build on last season's Premier League success and, if anything, it could be argued they have gone backwards and fallen into the same repetitive traps that stunt progress. Missed transfer targets, a failing relationship between manager and owner, occasional dressing room unrest -- there's a déjà vu element to the way Antonio Conte's reign as Blues boss is evolving which is all too reminiscent of predecessor Jose Mourinho. That didn't end well.
Is your club's manager the right man for the job?
Patterson: Mourinho is the right man for now. United needed someone to win trophies, attract world-class players and bring the winning feeling back to Old Trafford, which is exactly what he has done. His approach to big games is the biggest sticking point for supporters; he's too cautious and this has cost results and points against teams we could have beaten if we'd tried to play proactively, instead of just stopping the other team.
Worrall: Given the right support, there's no doubt that Conte is a good fit for Chelsea. A combination of shrewd tactical knowhow, determination, single-mindedness, passion and a willingness to allow players to express themselves on the pitch paid dividends last season. Yes, the Italian does have an abrasive personality and his training regimes are gruelling in the extreme which have led to player fatigue and injury issues, but such peccadillos can be worked on. Sadly the short-termism that abounds at Stamford Bridge inevitably means an abrupt departure for a manager and Conte will no doubt go the same way.
How would you assess the form of Romelu Lukaku and Alvaro Morata?
Patterson: Lukaku has been fine. 21 goals and seven assists in all competitions is a decent return and he often plays a role in the lead-up to the goals he scores. Yet he's not the world-class striker United need if they are going to mount a title challenge next season; the very best put away chances he has missed. Overall, while he is an upgrade on what was there before, he's not as good as what they need. For example, while I'd take him over Morata, I'd take Sergio Aguero over both!
Worrall: At a club-record £58m, Morata was already burdened with the weight of expectation before he'd kicked a ball for Chelsea. It all started wonderfully for the Spain international who bagged seven goals in his first seven appearances for the Blues at the start of the season, but a hamstring injury brought his honeymoon period to a painful end and it's been a slog since then. Indifferent form, further injuries and fatigue appear to have undermined the 25-year-old's confidence, which won't have been helped by stats which show zero goals in his past nine appearances.
What are your club's biggest areas of need?
Patterson: Defence. Too often United have played with a back five of players signed by Sir Alex Ferguson and he retired five years ago. If Eric Bailly can stay fit then that's one position sorted, but United have awful luck when it comes to central-defensive injuries. Victor Lindelof has potential and Timothy Fosu-Mensah could be a great option, but they need to buy a centre-back and at least one full-back; United also need another midfielder to play alongside Paul Pogba.
Worrall: Former technical director Michael Emenalo was blamed for many things but he didn't actually do that bad a job when it came to player recruitment and the London club need to appoint a replacement swiftly to avoid missing out on signing top talent. Chelsea are also lacking a genuine lion-hearted leader on the pitch and in the dressing room. Memories of John Terry still loom large, but he is exactly the type of player the Blues need. Gary Cahill's star is on the wane and while his deputy Cesar Azpilicueta is a versatile force of nature he does not have the "do or die" personality traits that marked Terry's tenure.
Given their current dominance, how realistic is it that Man City can be caught next season?
Patterson: Things change quickly in football. Chelsea were 15 points better than City last season when they won the title, now they trail by 19. It's hard to envisage Pep Guardiola's side collapsing in the same way next season but, if there was a lengthy injury to Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva or Raheem Sterling, as well as some bad results to knock confidence, who knows what could happen?
Worrall: Of course City are well out in front, both financially and from a squad perspective, and in Pep Guardiola they have an outstanding coach, but as Wigan proved when deservedly beat them in the FA Cup to end that quadruple dream: they can be got at. The winds of change are set to blow through Stamford Bridge again so if City are to be caught next season it's difficult to envisage Chelsea being the club to reel them in. That said, few gave Conte a chance of outsmarting Guardiola last year so never say never.
Make a prediction for Sunday's game.
Patterson: 1-0 to United. If United can keep Eden Hazard quiet like they did in this fixture last season, Chelsea's threat is limited. Also, they rarely concede at Old Trafford.
Worrall: 0-0. A game which both managers will be desperate not to lose could see two buses being parked on the Old Trafford pitch and the main action to found on the touchline where Mourinho and Conte will no doubt be jousting with each other.