The fortunes of three football clubs have meshed together this off-season in a strange three-way Premier League transfer tryst that has left winners and losers but, ultimately, intrigue.
Liverpool, Manchester City and Aston Villa have all seen players moving in opposing directions, with Raheem Sterling, Micah Richards, James Milner, Fabian Delph and seemingly Christian Benteke all engaging in a cross-club merry-go-round.
The big winners appear to be City, who have added two undeniable British talents to their already well-stocked locker room. Simultaneously licking their wounds will be Aston Villa, with the Midlands club left to rue a continuation of a worrying trend that sees their best players depart to wealthier rivals.
Liverpool, stung by losing their prized asset to City have, in part, remedied Sterling’s exit by snapping up highly regarded midfielder James Milner, who, although utilised as an auxiliary squad member at Manchester, served a myriad of roles for Manuel Pellegrini’s men, and represents a shrewd piece of business for Brendan Rodgers and his Reds. If as expected, Liverpool seal the signature of the 24 year-old Belgian, Christian Benteke; they could mount an argument that they face the 2015-16 season in healthier shape than last, particularly by adding an established Premier League striker who has scored 49 goals in 101 club appearances for Villa.
For Villa’s part, the best they can point at is the free transfer of Micah Richards, who was deemed surplus at Manchester City. However, his start to life in Birmingham has already raised eyebrows after exiting club captain, Fabian Delph, told City’s official website that it was a conversation with the England full-back that caused him to U-turn on an earlier decision to reject the Sky Blues’ overtures.
Delph’s departure adds to a long list of Aston Villa talent walking out on the club; Gareth Barry, James Milner and Ashley Young are all notable exclusions for the Claret and Blues – who have avoided relegation by narrow margins in each of the past three seasons.
Where does this leave each team?
For Manchester City, they’ve lost players they can readily counter. In signing Sterling, they’ve added an X-Factor who averages a goal at a tick under every five matches, with a similar assist ratio. In Delph they’ve added defensive cover in front of a strong backline and fuelled further competition to Fernandinho for that role.
They led the league at the start of 2015 and, had it not been for the African Cup of Nations that weakened their midfield at a crucial part of the season, may have challenged more aggressively for the title. With further additions likely this transfer window, it’s hard to envisage Manchester City not making a sustained bid for the title.
Liverpool have identified Milner for a more central role, which means their current roster lacks width with the removal of Sterling. Any notion that Jordon Ibe is a ready-made replacement is likely to be found out over the marathon context of a Premier League season. With Lazar Marković also yet to cement his credentials at Premier League level, further investment on outside speed is needed.
Liverpool managed just 52 goals last season, with departed club legend Steven Gerrard top with nine, and Sterling second, with seven. A fit Daniel Sturridge and a potential partnership with Benteke stands to go part way to resolving this issue, but it will remain a concern. Defence however, is the Reds’ chief issue, with only Tottenham conceding more goals of the clubs above them last campaign and, alarmingly, Southampton, Stoke and West Ham all beneath, conceding on fewer occasions.
With Brendan Rodgers’ spending already over £300 million during an up-and-down reign, a repeat of last season’s defensive failings would not be well received.
Aston Villa stare directly at their Premier League mortality. As a foundation Premier League member, the club has languished in recent times. With owner Randy Learner unable to attract offers for the club he put up for sale over 12 months ago, and seemingly reluctant to sink further costs into an operation he wants out of, the task ahead for manager, Tim Sherwood, and club chief executive, Tom Fox, seems an increasingly difficult one.
Villa finished 17th last campaign and were bailed out of relegation by the late season form of Benteke, whose goals, after a long recovery from a snapped Achilles, saw them through by the skin of their teeth.
With their England International club-captain gone, a squad which scored the second fewest goals of any Premier League club in 2014-15 and a defence which exposed the equal third most goals in the league, it is unfathomable to predict anything but further pain for the former European Cup winners in the season ahead.