While Liverpool march on relentless towards their first championship in 30 years, the chasing pack and the rest of the so-called ‘Big Six’ continue to stumble and squander points and generally make a mess of any semblance of a challenge to the Anfield club’s ongoing dominance.
The only questions remaining around this season’s title race are: when, not if, Liverpool will win it? Whether they can match Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003/04 by completing the entire campaign without losing a game? And whether they can surpass Manchester City’s record points haul of 100 in 2017/18? With a 16 point lead, a game in hand and having dropped just 2 points all season the answers to those questions may well be: earlier than ever before, quite possibly and highly likely.
To take nothing away from Liverpool and their unrelenting dominance, which simply has to be admired by anyone who truly appreciates football, the way that Jürgen Klopp’s charges are racing away with the title raises significant questions over the rest of their supposed title rivals and where they are getting it wrong in comparison to the runaway leaders who keep on getting it so right?
In many ways Manchester City failing to quite reach the heights of the previous two title-winning campaigns, in which they amassed a total of 198 out of a possible 228 points, was almost inevitable. However City have probably not helped themselves with some of the strategic decisions they made going into the current campaign. As is often said hindsight is always 20/20, but the decision to not recruit another centre-back to replace the departing leader, talisman, and in many ways a key part of the very heart and soul of the club, Vincent Kompany, as well as providing cover for Aymeric Laporte now seems like absolute folly. A fact borne out by the stats which show that City have conceded a total of 27 goals so far this term, 4 more than in the entirety of last season with a third of the campaign to go.
Equally it feels very much as if this Manchester City team has passed its peak, as well as the departed Kompany, David Silva, such an integral part of City’s success over the last decade, turned 34 a couple of weeks ago and will be leaving the Etihad at the end of the season. As brilliant as he has been over the last ten years there has been some evidence that his incredible creative powers have inevitably been on the wane in recent times.
Sergio Agüero has been one of the greatest forwards to have ever graced the Premier League, and scored his 252nd goal for City on Tuesday evening, but he will turn 32 in June and as yet there is no sign that City have a suitable replacement (if that is even possible!) in mind. Certainly Gabriel Jesus, talented though he undoubtedly is, hasn’t done enough in his three years at the club to provide a convincing case that he is the one to take up the mantle.
Of course Guardiola was ultimately brought in with the specific target of winning the Champions League, and with Pep having seemingly thrown in the cards on the title race back in December after their second defeat to Wolves this term, when he said: “It is a really bad situation for us. A frustrating first half of the season. Nobody expected us to be this far away from Liverpool at this halfway point. We have to continue now. We know that winning the title is very complicated.” might their focus shift towards a big push to securing European football’s biggest prize for the first time in the club’s history? Of course there is no guarantee that Liverpool, their substantial lead freeing them from pressure in the League, won’t be targeting that particular prize for a second season in succession as well.
Whether City can mount a sustained and more convincing challenge next time around will depend on two key factors: whether Liverpool can go again and maintain the extraordinary consistency they continue to display without injuries, fatigue or complacency affecting them; and secondly City’s recruitment and much-needed refreshment of the squad over the summer. Can we expect more significant investment and turnover in the squad to rejuvenate them? Assuming of course that Pep stays in post to honour his contract through to 2021!
Leicester City were at Christmas the closest challenger to Liverpool, but their humbling at home to the rampant Reds on Boxing Day pretty much ended their dreams of replicating their amazing title victory of four years ago. After losing consecutive games at home to Southampton and away at Burnley over the last two weekends they seem to have righted the ship with a fairly convincing despatching of West Ham on Wednesday evening.
The Foxes still sit in third place, eight points ahead of Chelsea, and must feel fairly assured of a second ever participation in the Champions League, although they will hope that key man Jamie Vardy’s injury isn’t as serious as feared when he limped off before half-time on Wednesday evening. Should we now start to seriously include Leicester in our thinking about top fours and title races in coming seasons?
Despite some patchy recent form, which has seen them win just one of their four league matches and drop seven points since the turn of the year, Chelsea still have a fairly comfortable cushion of six points over Manchester United, Tottenham and Wolves thanks largely to the equally inconsistent form of United and Spurs and the fact that Wolves have only recently come back from their sluggish start to the league season brought about by prioritising the Europa League in the early months.
The Blues’ 2-2 draw at home to 10-men Arsenal on Tuesday evening offered a glimpse of exactly where Frank Lampard’s men are struggling. Having been dominant in the opening stages, once David Luiz had been sent off and Jorginho had made it 1-0 from the penalty spot, Chelsea seemed to retreat into their shell rather than driving on and trying to put the visitors to the sword. Frank Lampard’s men are wasteful in front of goal and have kept just three clean sheets in their last fifteen matches; however whether they can be caught will depend on whether those chasing them can go on any kind of consistent run themselves.
As for the rest, while there is still the potential for United, Spurs and/or Arsenal to qualify for Europe most likely in the Europa League, they are very much in the process of ‘planning for next season’ as our cousins across the pond refer to teams with little realistically to play for in a specific campaign.
United’s squad is a hotchpotch of discordant transfer strategies employed by different managers if we are being kind, a mess brought about by throwing money at their perceived issues and hoping for the best if we are honest.
In fairness to Solskjær some of the issues within the squad are not of his making (that’s you Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez!) and he retains the backing of the Old Trafford faithful who seem to be targeting their ire squarely towards the Glazers, at least for now. However having lost more games than he has won since being given the permanent role and with United having their lowest points total at this stage for thirty years, patience might start to wear thin, even with a bona fide club legend, especially given the availability, in the short term at least, of a certain Mauricio Pochettino.
Tottenham having dispensed with Pochettino and replaced him with José Mourinho enjoyed something of a new manager bounce as they won four out of their first five games under the new boss, but since then their form has tailed off and after beating Brighton on Boxing Day they went four games without a win and also lost key man Harry Kane to injury until at least April. With a stadium debt to fund, notoriously frugal ownership and rumours already emanating of senior players reportedly thinking Mourinho’s training methods are “out of date” and his “long ball tactics holding them back”, it is difficult to foresee a happy ending to the self-avowed “Special One’s” tenure.
Across North London there are clear signs of Mikel Arteta’s impact at Arsenal in terms of better organisation, playing more on the front foot, pressing, commitment and attitude, even if results haven’t quite rewarded that just yet. The attitude on display at Stamford Bridge when reduced to 10-men was something that hasn’t been seen by Gooners for many a long day. However such is the mess that the squad is in as a result of the decline under Arsène and Emery’s muddled approach that the size of the task facing the rookie head coach is significant. On his appointment Arteta spoke about “quick wins” and “re-connecting with the fans”; the early signs are encouraging but there is a long way to go to truly put Arsenal back in the conversation about top four and title races.
As inevitable as Liverpool’s title win this season surely is, there is also significant work to be done by the rest of the chasing pack if anyone is going to stop them establishing a new football dynasty akin to that they enjoyed in the Seventies and Eighties.