A topsy-turvy season, in all senses, has broken the apparent predominance of the Premier League’s classic ‘Big Six’. Leicester City have emerged as more than credible challengers for European places under Brendan Rodgers, Wolverhampton Wanderers have balanced European adventures and Premier League consistency in a manner befitting of their excellent recruitment, and Sheffield United, defying all expectations, have sustained a serious challenge for a European place before the coronavirus lockdown. In any normal year the Blades’ achievement would be the unrivalled story of the season. Whilst Manchester City and Liverpool are pulling ahead as the best two sides in Europe, not just England, the rest of the Premier League’s A-listers are struggling. Arsenal, apparently unable to defend, have lost the joint-second fewest games, but still managed to underperform before Mikel Arteta’s arrival and a subsequent eight-game unbeaten run. Despite their improvement, they sit ninth, one place below bitter rivals Tottenham. Could this season indicate a new reality for the Premier League?
Whilst Wolves and Leicester are slowly establishing themselves in the top half, the disruption caused by a global pandemic may create greater inequality between the insulated, bankrolled ‘big’ clubs and the rest. A new top eight is forming with only Everton, and potentially Newcastle United, appearing to have any chance of a post-pandemic ascent towards European football. The short-term impact of this virus will be to create further barriers for the likes of West Ham United and Leeds United attempting to reattach themselves as contenders after varying periods away. Newcastle United – with possible future Saudi Arabian wealth – are keen not just to breach the top eight but even the top two but this is all potentially, and the conditions for their success will indicate a longer-term puncture into the fabric of the English game. Evolution, not revolution, will be the topic of conversation of a post-pandemic Premier League.
In the short-term it is difficult to see both Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal struggling to the extent they have this season. Both clubs find themselves in periods of diverging transition. Jose Mourinho’s exceptional history of anti-’second season syndrome’ means a challenge for the top four, even with a season of Europa League on the horizon, is expected. Arsenal, too, have seemingly turned a corner under Arteta, unbeaten in eight, defeating both Manchester United and Everton. But disappointing draws at home to Sheffield United and away at Burnley will be the gains they will need to make to have any chance of competing for a top six finish. The Gunners leave much work to be done.
Strengthening at the back is very obviously needed for Arsenal but for so long they have also lacked a dominating number six pivot – a position likely to be crucial if Arteta moves to a more possession-based style. Manchester City have Fernandinho, Barcelona have Sergio Busquets and Real Madrid have Casemiro – all rugged when necessary but elegant recyclers of possession. A promotion of David Luiz to this area may warrant inspection but with the likes of Kalvin Phillips at Leeds United and Weston McKennie at Schalke 04, Arsenal can bring in a new face without the bank having to be broken. Tottenham attempted to fill a similar hole with the acquisition of Tanguy Ndombele – a signing yet to convince Mourinho – who has shown flashes of potential even within lacklustre performances. Tottenham’s issues are likely to come at the back: Jan Vertonghen’s precarious contract situation will largely dictate any defensive incomings. A solid partner for Toby Alderweireld will form the basis of any rebuild towards a top four spot. Nathan Ake at Bournemouth looks destined for greater things but a return to Chelsea may be too tempting. Sevilla’s Diego Carlos, previously linked with Liverpool, also appears set to move to the next level pretty quickly. Options exist but trust Mourinho to wait for the right one and not allow himself to be palmed off as he was at Manchester United.
Arsenal may have the added advantage of not having to sustain a European front which will, as demonstrated by Leicester, benefit an already large squad. Both Arsenal and Tottenham need a return to the upper tier, and they’ll have to earn it with sides such as Leicester sticking their foot in the door. Tottenham, for the brand exposure and financial rewards that will help to repay substantial stadium debts, and finance a much-needed squad rebuilding. Arsenal, to prevent falling even further behind the ever-growing Manchester City brand. Behind Liverpool and Manchester City, carving themselves into the history of English, and possibly European, football sits Leicester City.
Leicester will, barring any wild collapse, occupy a much-deserved Champions League spot, at least next season. A squad awash with coveted players like Wilfred Ndidi, James Maddison and Ricardo Pereira should be insulated from the vultures of Europe’s elite in a way the 2015/6 title-winning side was not. It is an established Leicester City side made in Brendan Rodgers’s image despite his relatively short tenure. They possess counter-attacking ability against the possession-hungry big sides, but also the ability to morph into a possession-hungry monster themselves against the lesser sides. Succession planning in their forward-line appear to have taken shape with Kelechi Iheanacho and Ayoze Pérez but this will need added quality to sustain both continental and domestic challenges. Seeding rules in the Champions League will likely see them handed a tricky group that could see them drop out of Europe before the halfway point of the season: expect them to stick around with full weeks between games in the second half of the season. Finishing third may become the new seventh – a position deserving of a trophy in the age of the seemingly untouchable Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
With the evolution of Nuno Espírito Santo’s Wolverhampton Wanderers into a rugged force in the English game, it is difficult to see them falling away, instead strengthening and, much like their Midlands neighbours, becoming a thorn in the side of Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United. Champions League football will be needed to assert that potential. The quality of Raul Jiménez, Pedro Neto and Ruben Neves is impossible to count out of the running for a top four place if kept together – a potentially difficult task. Thursday-Sunday rotations have thus been negotiable but further depth may need to be added to bridge the gap to the Wednesday-Saturday quality gap. A trope often levelled at champions-to-be Liverpool is their supposed luck with injuries. Wolves have had similar ‘luck’ that has gone under the radar, having used just twenty players across the Premier League season. Their reliance on a core group may need to be diversified as they seek to reach the next level of intensity. Equally, the same can be said that a close tight-knit group can better maintain rhythm: Manchester City used just twenty-one players in their 2018/9 ninety-eight-point season.
We appear to be at a crossroads to which the Premier League could overthrow its upper tier in a mutinous rebellion of the existing order, or we could see a renaissance of the missing components of the six generals who rule the upper tier of the Premier League, and have done for the best part of a decade. We are likely to see, at least for the next two years, a continuing duopoly at the top, Leicester City or Chelsea looking the likeliest of the rest to make it a triumvirate, but still a way off. For the race for the two remaining European spots, six quality teams will only make for a more exciting race for Europe. But for Arsenal and Tottenham it represents potential consequences that could set either club into ruts known all too well to Everton and Newcastle fans: big clubs unable to break back into their former homes as the walls are built higher and higher by the larger rewards at the summit of the English game.
Image Rights: Ardfern via Wikimedia Commons