As excellent as Manchester City and Liverpool continue to be, looking very much all set to continue their duopolistic dominance of the Premier League title race for at least this season and in all likelihood beyond, for the rest of us things aren’t quite so enrapturing.
The build-up to Monday evening’s clash between erstwhile title contenders and bitter rivals Manchester United and Arsenal was founded on the narrative that these games are no longer what they used to be back when Sir Alex and Arsène were at the peak of their powers and their squads were stocked full of supremely talented warriors that were the envy of the Premier League. No sh*t Sherlock, anyone ‘lucky’ enough to have followed either team over the past five to ten years could have told you that!
Arsenal ceased being seen as a creditable rival to United, or anyone for that matter, when, hamstrung by the debt of building the at the time state-of-the-art Emirates Stadium, their stubbornly idiosyncratic manager broke up The Invicibles all too early and put his faith in ‘project youth’. For their part Manchester United have never recovered from the retirement of the most successful manager in English football history.
Back in the late nineties and early noughties Wenger’s revolutionary transformation of Arsenal created a squad that rattled Ferguson and United’s dominance that had seen them win four of the first five Premier League crowns. Beyond the pure battle for the title, the rivalry was more akin to a war: Keane against Vieira both on the field and in the tunnel, Pizza-gate, Keown & co overly aggressively lording it over Van Nistelrooy, traditional British values against continental culture; the two sides purely and utterly despised each other and it manifested itself on the pitch.
How the mighty have fallen! The game on Monday night was so far removed from the halcyon days of the past as to be almost unrecognisable. Instead of the blood and thunder, do or die intensity of the way it used to be what we got was an error-strewn damp squib of a game that, as former protagonist and new Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane informed us at every possible opportunity: “lacked quality”.
Played out in the not untypical torrential Manchester rain, the game was an error-strewn affair between one side that is usually relatively solid at the back but struggles to score goals and the other that is so lacking in basic defensive organisation that it has conceded at least fifty goals in the last two seasons and had already let in ten in the opening six matches of this campaign.
The 1-1 draw wasn’t so much deserved by each side but about the sum total their respective performances merited. Heading into it the match had been billed as a key clash towards determining a top four place and a potential return to the Champions League gravy train, in the end all it did was reaffirm how far behind Manchester City and Liverpool these two once-dominant clubs remain and how much work there is still to be done for both. Arsenal currently sit in fourth place in the table, a position they would no doubt happily settle for come season end, with United in tenth, already nine and twelve points respectively behind pacesetters Liverpool. Realistically the only impact either can hope to have on the title race is if they can take points off the two main protagonists.
It has been quite a fortnight for Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham, knocked out of the League Cup on penalties by lowly Colchester United one week, and then utterly humiliated to the tune of 7-2 by Bayern Munich the next. The noises coming out of the club must be alarming, to say the least, for Spurs fans with Pochettino himself having openly alluded to “different agendas” operating within the squad and the need for his players to re-establish their “mental connection” and “togetherness”.
Beyond those two humbling results though Spurs’ form hasn’t been good for quite some time, their incredible run to the Champions League final in which they squeezed past Manchester City and came back from the dead against Ajax, very much masked the fact that they finished the campaign picking up just 11 points from their last 12 matches, only clinging on to fourth place despite having a 10 point lead earlier in this season, thanks to Arsenal’s own inept conclusion to the season. This season hasn’t started all that much better with just three wins out of their opening seven games.
No one seems to be admitting it around the club but the cost of building their swanky new ground may be having a significant impact on available financial resource. Tottenham infamously went into last season without having signed a single player; while this time around the club-record signing of Tanguy Ndombele; the departure of Kieran Trippier to Atlético Madrid and the fact that three key players: Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen, are all in the final year of their contracts with no evidence of new deals being anywhere near being agreed, screams that money, or the lack thereof, may be a significant issue.
Pochettino himself seems to be flirting with new suitors, having rather bizarrely suggested prior to the Champions League Final that he might leave if Spurs went on to win the trophy. He has also during the summer expressed frustration at not being involved in transfer and recruitment activity: “I am only coaching them (the players) and trying to get the best from them. Sell, buy players, sign contract, not sign contract – I think it is not in my hands, it’s in the club’s hands and (chairman) Daniel Levy.”
If rumours are to be believed, the managerial positions at both Manchester United and Real Madrid, two clubs who have reportedly made overtures towards Pochettino in the past, remain volatile. Would it be too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Argentine coach has realised he has taken Tottenham as far as he can and is seeking pastures new? It certainly feels as if his side has passed its peak and does not have the ready cash available or, at least in Pochettino’s opinion, the right management structure to push them onwards to the next level.
Level on points with Tottenham are Chelsea who have by necessity as a result of the transfer ban and the seemingly harsh sacking of yet another manager in the form of Maurizio Sarri, had to find a new way of doing things. Unable to solve problems through the transfer market and having appointed a relative rookie, albeit a returning club legend in the form of Frank Lampard, as head coach, Chelsea have no alternative but to try and harvest a crop of highly talented youngsters. While results have been mixed, the style of play and the excitement of seeing young players being given the opportunity to establish themselves and show what they have to offer seems to be going down well with the Stamford Bridge faithful, even if it does seem a million miles removed from the approach that has brought so much tangible success ever since Roman Abramovich took control of the club.
For the also-rans of the ‘Big Six’ Premier League things really ain’t what they used to be!