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A new season, but same old story

It's the glorified friendly that tells you nothing; OK, we get it.

Manchester City haven't spent big but look ready to defend the titlePhotograph: Getty
Manchester City haven't spent big but look ready to defend the titlePhotograph: Getty

But it has also been a full four weeks since the World Cup final and, for many, that's too long without their idea of proper football.

Heading into today's Charity Shield, the first impression is distinctly plus ca change. Manchester City look - on paper - solid, battle-hardened and ready to defend their second Premier League title in three seasons. Arsenal appear like a depository of lightweight, tricky, technically-gifted munchkins who, despite their second straight year of hefty summer spending, lack depth and balance in key areas.

City haven't admitted it in public - nor are they likely to do so - but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that this summer's reduced spend of around £10 million is a by-product of the Financial Fair Play Settlement they reached with Uefa last spring. Most of the £51m fine inflicted on them is suspended and only becomes payable if they violate certain spending restrictions this year.

They did most of their pricey shopping in 2013 anyway, so you can see why there wasn't much to fix. Fernando is another body off the bench in midfield, Willy Caballero is an upgraded version of Costel Pantilimon and Frank Lampard is a temporary patch for Uefa's home-grown player quota.

Sure, they could use some depth at centre-back because Martin Demichelis wasn't exactly a model of consistency last season (and isn't getting any younger), while Matija Nastasic is coming off a campaign severely blighted by injuries. And that's why, you suppose, they've been linked to Porto's Eliaquim Mangala and Roma's Mehdi Benatia. But we're taking details here and, besides, if Nastasic looks reliable this month, there may be no need to spend big on another central defender.

If anything, as long as Yaya Toure stays happy and his birthday needs are met, you can see this team getting stronger. Samir Nasri, David Silva and Jesus Navas are all entering their prime. Stevan Jovetic has been lighting it up in pre-season. Bacary Sagna's arrival allows you to use Pablo Zabaleta in different ways.

Sergio Aguero's fitness remains a concern, just as it was for much of last season. But age is on his side. And, in any case, City have a natural hedge with the likes of Jovetic, Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo. Throw in the fact that Manuel Pellegrini has a year's experience in the English game under his belt - experience of the kind that may help the club avoid dropping points in needless circumstances (witness Cardiff and Aston Villa last year) - and there is little question they are in pole position.

And Arsenal? Well, Arsene Wenger got himself a fresh pair of full-backs - Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers - as well as a Barcelona regular (Alexis Sanchez), a World Cup keeper (David Ospina) and the return of a prodigal son, fresh from his Brazil 2014 and Olympiacos exploits (Joel Campbell).

Meanwhile though, the usual blind spots remain. With Thomas Vermaelen's departure to Barcelona confirmed last night there is no third centre-back which is why, as Per Mertesacker is only just returning from World Cup duty, we might see Chambers at centre-half.

Mathieu Flamini is as close as you get to a midfield enforcer with any kind of physical presence. And you're still gambling that either Campbell or Yaya Sanogo can fill Olivier Giroud's shoes should the need arise, despite the fact that goals in Greece don't always translate to the Premier League (just ask Kostas Mitroglou) and that the young Frenchman still looks to be a work-in-progress. After all these years though, maybe it's time to simply accept that Wenger sees football a bit differently or has his own concept of what constitutes "balance". For all the criticism, the Wenger way worked a charm in the first half of last season.

Sure, Chambers and, especially, Debuchy seem Wenger prototypes - wingers masquerading as full-backs - but if that's what he wants from his wide defenders, more Kieran Gibbs than Ashley Cole, so be it. And, yes, conventional wisdom would suggest that bringing in a keeper of Ospina's calibre when Wojciech Szczesny was solid last season and is still on the upswing, might wreak havoc with the young Pole's confidence. But, heck, he knows Szczesny better than we do ... maybe masochism and insecurity help him excel.

As for Sanchez, there is no doubting his ability. But does a team that can already count on Alec Oxlade- Chamberlain, Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott (when he returns), Santi Cazorla (plus Serge Gnabry, Tomas Rosicky and Lukas Podolski) really need another attacking midfielder? Particularly when they are already shoe-horning two other attacking midfielders - Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey - into central midfield?

Logic says no, but it's Wenger's team. This is his vision. And he's in charge.

OF course, at least at Arsenal it's the manager calling the shots according to his philosophy, however unconventional it might be. Real Madrid, the reigning champions of Europe, who travel to Cardiff to face Seville in the European Super Cup on Friday, seem to have conducted their summer business based on hype and flavours of the month.

They had two top-drawer goal- keepers in Iker Casillas and Diego Lopez - who now seems to be on his way to AC Milan - but brought in Keylor Navas. Navas was a standout at Levante last season, but if anyone tries to tell you they signed him on the strength of his Liga showings rather than the World Cup, ask them why they didn't lock him up before the tournament.

They had a winger reinvent himself as a central attacking midfielder and prove himself almost as influential as any player at the club (Angel Di Maria) and they went out and signed another, even more attacking "No 10": James Rodriguez. And surely it's just a coincidence that he was the top scorer at Brazil 2014... no doubt they would have signed him anyway because they scouted him closely and carefully evaluated where he'd fit in the team.

They had a midfield rotation that provided quality and muscle and added a very talented passer who spent much of the year playing just behind the strikers: Toni Kroos.He is an exceptional talent and, because he had just one year left on his deal, came relatively cheaply. But now they either have to pretend he can sit in front of the back four (which Pep Guardiola says he can't) or ditch two out of Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric to find a spot for him in the line-up.

Meanwhile up front, Alvaro Morata's departure leaves manager Carlo Ancelotti with Karim Benzema as his only credible centre-forward option. Which is why we can expect a desperate pursuit of Radamel Falcao.

President Florentino Perez has said he sees his team as the Harlem Globetrotters, great entertainers who get bums on seats and build brands. His transfers reflect that and always have.

The problem is football is still a competitive sport. And if you don't have some equilibrium in your side and don't get input from those who actually have to give the team an identity and a system on the pitch, you can pay a hefty price.

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