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Dec 3, 2009

The future's bright

As the Noughties draw to a close, there is little doubt that the decade in English football has belonged to four clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. But how well prepared are they for the 2010s?

Assuming that each of their immediate rivals emulated Chelsea and picked up a transfer ban, how would the major contenders (plus the club with the resources to join them) look halfway through the next decade?

It is, of course, a hypothetical exercise and presumes each player will stay at his current club, but it can indicate which departments managers will target in their recruitment drives.

All teams are for January 1, 2015, with ages correct for then.

ARSENAL

(4-3-3): Vito Mannone (27); Bacary Sagna (31), Alex Song (27), Thomas Vermaelen (29), Kieran Gibbs (25); Cesc Fabregas (27), Abou Diaby (28), Aaron Ramsey (24); Theo Walcott (25), Robin van Persie (31), Jack Wilshere (23).

Substitutes: Lukasz Fabianski (29), Gael Clichy (29), Johan Djourou (27), Craig Eastmond (24), Samir Nasri (27), Nicklas Bendtner (26), Carlos Vela (25).

Arsene Wenger's futuristic approach means Arsenal should fare well in such predictions; long-term planning is a forte at the Emirates Stadium. Even without signing a midfielder, the team of 2015 contains enough talent to leave Samir Nasri on the bench. Given Wenger's ageism, Bacary Sagna and Robin van Persie may have to be careful that they are not pensioned off beforehand, though neither should be in decline then.

There are plenty of examples of players adopting deeper positions as they age and this suspicion is that the future of Abou Diaby, who has long been compared to Patrick Vieira, lies as the midfield anchorman while Alex Song could revert to defence. The battle between Gael Clichy and Kieran Gibbs for the left-back position seems a particular indication of strength, while Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere should not peak until the second half of the decade. But, as ever with Arsenal, the areas of concern may include the goalkeeper.

CHELSEA

(4-3-3): Petr Cech (32); Branislav Ivanovic (30), Slobodan Rajkovic (25), John Terry (34), Yuri Zhirkov (31); Michael Essien (32), John Obi Mikel (27), Nemanja Matic (26); Gael Kakuta (23), Franco di Santo (25), Fabio Borini (23).

Subs: Ross Turnbull (29), Ashley Cole (34), Michael Mancienne (26), Jeffrey Bruma (23), Miroslav Stoch (25), Salomon Kalou (29), Daniel Sturridge (25).

This is a Chelsea team with a difference. It is hard to foresee even a player as fit as Frank Lampard lasting another five years, while Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Michael Ballack, Ricardo Carvalho and Florent Malouda are still more unlikely to figure. John Terry and the two Coles, Ashley and Joe, may be in their final season.

So the next few years provides the real test of Frank Arnesen's recruitment policy. Two Serbs, Nemanja Matic and Slobodan Rajkovic, are thus far untried but could have pivotal roles, along with the controversially recruited Gael Kakuta. Fabio Borini and Franco di Santo have potential but it is easy to envisage Chelsea spending heavily on a striker in the meantime - possibly, of course, in January - and on a midfielder in the subsequent seasons.

LIVERPOOL

(4-3-3): Jose Reina (32); Glen Johnson (30), Martin Skrtel (30), Daniel Agger (30), Emiliano Insua (25); Alberto Aquilani (30), Javier Mascherano (30), Damien Plessis (26); Steven Gerrard (34), Fernando Torres (30), Daniel Pacheco (23).

Subs: Peter Gulacsi (24), Mikel San Jose (25), Daniel Sanchez Ayala (24), Martin Kelly (24), Lucas Leiva (27), David Ngog (25), Krisztian Nemeth (25).

If the majority of Rafa Benitez's current charges should have several seasons left in them, the ages of the side above indicate that Liverpool will need to rebuild around the middle of the decade, when eight of this 11 will be in their thirties. If there are reasons to doubt that such an unfortunately injury-prone player as Daniel Agger will last that long, there should be younger alternatives in defence.

A lack of options is particularly pronounced on the flanks, however, while the immediate future should determine if Benitez's enthusiastic recruitment of young talents such as David Ngog, Daniel Pacheco, Andras Simon and Krisztian Nemeth has actually yielded one of sufficient stature to be an automatic choice at Anfield. If not, then the next few years could provide a repeat of the last: a search for world-class performers being accompanied by a need to gamble on unproven players.

MANCHESTER UNITED

(4-4-2): Ben Foster (31); Rafael da Silva (24), Nemanja Vidic (33), Jonny Evans (26), Fabio da Silva (24); Ravel Morrison (21), Darren Fletcher (30), Anderson (26), Danny Welbeck (24); Wayne Rooney (29), Federico Macheda (23).

Subs: Ron-Robert Zieler (25), John O'Shea (33), Darron Gibson (27), Gabriel Obertan (25), Antonio Valencia (29), Zoran Tosic (27), Joshua King (22).

Together with Arsenal, United should emerge from this exercise with most optimism. While there are reasons to believe that Nemanja Vidic, like Liverpool's Javier Mascherano, may be employed elsewhere long before then, he is one of only two outfield players in their 30s and some of the squad should be stronger in the second half of the decade.

One of them, Ravel Morrison is an unknown quantity, but has been tipped for greatness. There may be a need more reinforcements in goal and, perhaps, centre midfield, but there is a surfeit of alternatives for the attacking positions. That said, there was a (slightly facetious) case for arguing that a 41-year-old Ryan Giggs will still be the best option on the left wing in 2015. While Sir Alex Ferguson has stockpiled wingers, several are yet to provide definitive proof they are United players.

MANCHESTER CITY

(4-4-2): Shay Given (38); Pablo Zabaleta (29), Micah Richards (26), Vincent Kompany (28), Gareth Barry (33); Stephen Ireland (28), Michael Johnson (26), Nigel de Jong (30), Robinho (30); Carlos Tevez (30), Emmanuel Adebayor (30).

Subs: Joe Hart (27), Javan Vidal (25), Nedum Onuoha (28), Joleon Lescott (32), Vladimir Weiss (25), Felipe Caicedo (26), Valeri Bojinov (28).

The advantages of being the world's richest club should include an ability to look outside Eastlands for players yet if City don't, one element that is immediately apparent is how many of their recent recruits may not be around in five years' time. By his own admission, Craig Bellamy falls into that category; so might Kolo Toure, Roque Santa Cruz, Wayne Bridge and, for other reasons, Robinho.

Were the funds from Abu Dhabi to disappear, much would depend on those whose development has stalled: Micah Richards and Michael Johnson could form the spine of the England side then, or be dismissed as unfulfilled potential. Presuming City retain their wealth, their side of 2015, like Chelsea's, may bear little resemblance to their current counterparts.

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