The Premier League's three big spenders – Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Chelsea – had a combined outlay of £259.4m on transfers last summer but in terms of results and league position, so far their investments have not paid off.
City, who are eighth and six points off the leaders Arsenal, spent £92m on Fernandinho, Jesús Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic and Martin Demichelis yet have lost four of their six away games as Manuel Pellegrini struggles to get the best out of his huge squad. Tottenham, the market's biggest spenders with a £104.7m outlay, are five points off the pace, with their form at White Hart Lane the concern. Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado, Etienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela were all recruited but André Villas-Boas's band have won only three home matches.
Chelsea, four points adrift, spent £61.5m on André Schürrle, Marco van Ginkel, Willian, and Christian Atsu. Samuel Eto'o and Mark Schwarzer also boosted the squad on free transfers yet the Blues, like City, have been dismal on their travels. So what is going wrong?
The manner in which Martín Demichelis and James Milner got themselves in a tangle to allow Phil Bardsley to score the winner for Sunderland on Sunday was the latest illustration of the tentativeness that is killing Manuel Pellegrini's team away from home. This problem extends from the defence to attack where, broadly, the same amount of chances are being created, in terms of shots a game – 13.67 at home, 12 away – but the conversion rate drops from 30.3% to a concerning 10.39%.
The dismal displays on the road began in the opening trip to Cardiff City when they went down 3-2 to Malky Mackay's side, with Pellegrini's defence allowing Fraizer Campbell two soft goals, both from corners. Then, in answer to whether Joe Hart might have cut out one of these, the manager said: "Defending set pieces is a duty for the whole team, not just the goalkeeper or the defenders."
That was on 25 August. Nearly three months on and the fragility was still present at the Stadium of Light, where apart from Milner and Demichelis the question of "What the hell did they think they were doing?" extended to Micah Richards, the right-back who was caught badly out of position upfield.
The defeats at Aston Villa and Chelsea came through late goals to further suggest there is a lack of focus in defence, a switching off at the vital moments, with the City goal having been breached 10 times away compared to twice on their own ground.
At the front there is as much concern for Pellegrini in his team's inability to finish off the opposition. At the Etihad there has been a goal glut of 20 in five outings. Away from Manchester only eight in six games, which is perhaps the most damning statistic – especially if compared to the title-winning charge of two seasons ago, when 23 goals came under Roberto Mancini from the same amount of matches.
Of the new buys, Alvaro Negredo has the most to ponder, having scored three in five home games against only one in six away, numbers that have to be improved on. A glance at the £20.6m Spaniard's shot-conversion rate suggests the problem may be mental as he adjusts to a new league and unfamiliar grounds. In front of his own fans Negredo has a 37.5% conversion rate, yet at other stadiums it drops to 11.11%.
More broadly, City can suffer from being too indirect. What has continued to be a problem from last season – the lack of genuine width and the tendency of David Silva and Samir Nasri, the main playmakers, to be overly intricate remains. Jesús Navas was bought to solve these problems but he is yet to complete 90 minutes away from home. Jamie Jackson
Chelsea's season has been rather stop-start, a campaign undermined by blips more than persistent problems, though they will only feel like proper contenders again for the Premier League title once an element of long-term consistency is mustered. At present a team who can eclipse Manchester City one week is more than capable of drifting to defeat against Newcastle the next. The management blamed "complacency" for that recent loss, though the team have lacked urgency and pace in the pass too often this term.
Perhaps that is to be expected. José Mourinho has made no secret of the size of the task he has taken on this time round. His squad is imbalanced, whether with a relative lack of striking options or in terms of its development given the relative inexperience of those charged with creating, and often scoring, the team's opportunities. Whatever combination is flung together in that trio of attackers behind the front man, the personnel will still be relatively youthful – Mourinho considers experience truly to kick in from 26-30 – and must still propel this side. The management has accepted inconsistency will be a by-product of such over-reliance until their philosophies are properly ingrained within the set-up.
They still struggle when teams bank up against them or clutter midfield to snuff out any space in which Chelsea's creators would thrive. They endured the same problems on occasion last season, if not the year before, but where they used to rely on Juan Mata's spark to conjure something special the Spaniard's own spluttering form – he has clearly struggled with a lack of regular selection – has denied them that outlet. Frank Lampard has been off-colour of late, adjusting as he is to life without so many of those lung-busting box to box charges for which he made his name. Fernando Torres has shown form in fits and starts but has been blighted by suspension and, more significantly, untimely injuries every time he appears ready finally to make his mark at this club. Romelu Lukaku, who would offer a different dimension to unsettle opponents, has been loaned to Everton with no recall clause in January. Those at Stamford Bridge must hope he damages opponents more for Everton than he might have done in cameos with Chelsea. All of which has left the team too predictable for comfort. The two major summer additions – André Schürrle and Willian – have offered tasters of their talent, the latter impressive in midweek against Schalke if rather more frustrated against West Bromwich Albion. Marco van Ginkel, who cost £8m, is injured and will miss the rest of the campaign. Instead they have relied more on Samuel Eto'o's cheeky ingenuity more recently, against Cardiff, Schalke and Albion or Eden Hazard's and Oscar's eyes for goal from midfield.
Admittedly, their start to the campaign has hardly been simple, with awkward trips to Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Everton, which goes some way to explaining their average, if not disastrous, away form, and European ties and a level of fixture congestion given TV schedules have riled the management. Mourinho will always be a draw for the cameras. But, regardless, everything about them smacks of this being a work in progress. If Manchester City could transform the obvious strength up and down the spine of their team into consistency, their bid for the title would still feel more persuasive than that of Chelsea. A year down the line, with Mourinho and his ideas properly embedded, that might be different. Dominic Fifield
It would be easy to dismiss Tottenham Hotspur's recent splutters merely as teething troubles for a squad that underwent a radical overhaul over the summer. Certainly, their inability to conjure offensive rhythm might boil down to new players at a new club still learning each other's foibles. Roberto Soldado, the first-choice forward who arrived from Valencia for £26m over the summer, is still coming to terms with the fact he will not benefit from the same kind of supply-line as at the Mestalla, where wingers would hit the by-line and pull crosses regularly across the six-yard box. Erik Lamela, who cost a similar amount from Roma, is still adjusting to life in the Premier League and, like other imports over the years, will need time before he offers up a consistent threat.
The same might apply for Nacer Chadli and Christian Eriksen, the latter having enjoyed a bright start only for his radar now to feel skew-whiff as opponents work to close him down. His set-piece delivery deserted him at White Hart Lane on Sunday as anxiety seemed to take hold. As Andre Villas-Boas has pointed out, frustration makes itself felt quite readily in that corner of north London, and with good reason given the team's inability to conjure a fluidity of attack on a regular basis. The team has managed a solitary goal in 341 minutes of Premier League football at home, 89 shots in six fixtures at the Lane this season having yielded only six goals to date. Three of their nine league goals this season have been penalties.
That suggests they are struggling to break down massed opponents and it may be natural for the flair players recruited over the summer to take longer to adjust to a more physical leadgue. Spurs have brought in plenty of physically imposing and strong personnel to feature down the spine of their team – Paulinho, Etienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches – who have added the muscle to establish such a fine defensive record. Omit the vaguely freakish 3-0 home reverse to West Ham United and Villas-Boas' side have shipped only three goals in 10 matches, with seven clean sheets. Yet solidity is one thing, striking a balance with attacking endeavour quite another. Perhaps the management might consider whether they have, as the crowd's murmuring might suggest, been overly cautious on occasion.
All three of the team's league defeats have come in the wake of Europa League matches but, given that the manager tends to change his team dramatically between the competitions, fatigue can hardly be used as an excuse. Instead, the gumminess no doubt owes more to integration and the reality that this team, for all its lavish recruitment, has lost a player in Gareth Bale who could conjure victories from tight affairs with outlandish winners, as illustrated all too regularly over the final weeks of last term. Removing 25 goals, as well as explosive power and pace, was always going to leave a void.
As it is, Villas-Boas may have to find a way to integrate Jermain Defoe, who has netted nine times in the cup competitions but is only ever granted cameos in the Premier League, perhaps even in preference to Soldado. "But we have so many quality players with goals in them that come the end of the season I really don't think that our goal tally will be one of the low ones," offered Brad Fridel in the wake of Sunday's disappointment. "I think it will be right up there. For instance, we had enough chances to score six against Newcastle with the quality we have. I see that quality on a daily basis in training, It's not a lack of confidence or anything. It will come good." Dominic Fifield