As the English Premier League continues to rumble towards its inevitable end-of-season conclusion, there is a growing sense of panic at all levels.
Teams at the top are working out the best way to finish the season in style, the clubs at the bottom have already welcomed the specter of relegation into their locker rooms, and the ones in the middle are comfortable to bask in their own mediocrity. What is common to all, however, is that there is still a lot of football to play before the season ends on May 19, 2019.
Fans of the Premier League are more than aware that a team’s fortunes are not set in stone.
Granted, the Big Six (the Manchesters, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur) would have expected to be in the title mix after at least 24 games. Other clubs might have hoped that their season would have turned out better. Some probably even thought they could break into the top six.
After spending a bucket-load of cash in the summer, Fulham, Everton and even West Ham should have got a better return in terms of league standings, albeit that mid-table obscurity was the most likely outcome.
As per usual EPL Gameweek 25 gave us the expected dose of drama (not as much as Gameweek 24), but the fact of the matter is that with 13 games to go, the unanswered questions remain. Will Liverpool claim their first title since 1990? Are Manchester City about to move through the gears? Can Spurs claim a draw this season? Are Chelsea motivated yet? How awful are Huddersfield? Has the scouting team at Fulham been sacked?
And while The Turf can’t promise to provide a definitive answer, our brief review of the last round of games will give us some idea of the level of panic that some teams are likely to experience in the coming weeks.
It’s tough at the top
Liverpool started Gameweek 25 five points ahead of second-placed Manchester City, and six in front of Spurs. They finished it in second place, level on points with the Blue half of Manchester and five ahead of the unexpected challengers from London.
If this scenario seems confusing – bearing in mind that you get awarded three points for a win – then let me clarify what happened.
Liverpool followed up their draw at home to Leicester with another draw at West Ham – a match that was notable for some bad refereeing in favor of Liverpool (twice) and Red’s manager Jurgen Klopp complaining that the referee “being human” was a problem for his players.
Manchester City, on the other hand, shrugged off the defeat to Newcastle and beat Arsenal 3-1. They then took full advantage of Liverpool’s two-game winless streak by squeezing past Everton in a rearranged match on February 6.
So, it really comes down to maths. City won two games, picked up six points and went top. Liverpool only picked up one point, and tumbled to second on goal difference. The silver lining for the ‘Pool is that City have now played one more game than them, so it is logical to assume that the title race is some way from being over.
Spurs, however, will still feel that they are in a race for their first title since 1961 and, yes, the club did win the league in black and white.
Despite being away from home since May 2017 and with almost every senior player injured at least once during the season, Spurs have stubbornly refused to drop down the table. Factor into the mix that most football pundits have sneered at the mere possibility of the team challenging for the Premier League, and it seems that the London club is not only punching above its weight but also enjoying the experience of being underdogs.
Challenging on a budget
To put that last comment into context, Spurs have a significantly lower net spend compared to the other Big Six club and have not signed anyone since January 2018. The new stadium is inching towards completion and the club hopes to go back to N17 at some-point in March, according to a newly-released statement from Spurs.
Since the summer of 2014, Manchester City, for instance, have a net spend of $745.5 million and collected 379 points. Chelsea and Liverpool have net spends of $448 million and $227.5 million, and total points of 347 and 334, respectively. Arsenal are slightly better than Chelsea in terms of net spend – $353 million, 331 points gained – but Manchester United have a net spend of $687 million, also for a total return of 331 points. In addition, United are on their fourth manager in that time and looking to tie up a fifth in the near future.
Spurs have a net spend of $64.5 million since the heady days of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. And have put 351 points on the board. Without winning the league once.
As a Spurs fan, I am naturally biased, but the players keep plugging away, with the 1-0 win against Newcastle the third game in a row that the team has secured all three points in the last 10 minutes of a game. When you mix in the simple fact that Harry Kane and Dele Alli are still some weeks from recovery, then the constant (and vaguely irritating) media mantra that this is a two-horse title race dovetails perfectly with the aforementioned underdog status that Spurs are happy to live with.
And what worked for Leicester City in 2015/16 could very well benefit Spurs in the last 13 games of the season. Which would really piss off NBC’s Lee Dixon, the Men in Blazers and anyone else who wants Liverpool to win the League. Next up for Spurs … Leicester City.
Thursday night football update
Away from the top three, the other members of the Big Six had a mixed Gameweek 25.
Arsenal lost at Manchester City, which prompted the usual outpouring of unintentional hilarity on Arsenal Fan TV. Arsenal’s problem is that the transition from Wenger to Unai Emery has not wiped out the fact that the Gunners defend (at times) like a Sunday League side, with the opening goal by City – scored after less than a minute for the second game running – the sort of schoolboy defending that even schoolboys would be ashamed of.
The club should qualify for Europe again, albeit the Europa rather than Champions League, as they are nine points clear of seventh place Wolves. However, they are 10 points behind Spurs at this stage and the consensus is that they would be grateful to finish fourth.
On the flip side, they are only three points behind Chelsea, and one behind Manchester United. For the neutral, this race for the last CL spot could be one of the more intriguing narratives yet to play out, especially it means the successful team will not have to play on a Thursday. Against a European club that nobody has heard of.
With that in mind, the Solskjaer revolution at United shows no signs of stopping. The team is now unbeaten in 10 games since Ole came in as interim manager in November, and there are mutterings in the media that Manchester United have got their swagger back.
To be fair, United’s 1-0 win at Leicester was nothing spectacular, but the team went out and did a job, coming away with all three points. The chances of a top-four spot will rest with the players, naturally, but their fans will be quietly confident that Ole can lead them to the promised land … before he heads back to his actual job in Norway. Possibly.
Chelsea recovered from their spanking at Bournemouth by handing out a 5-0 thrashing of Huddersfield. The victory was described as “dominant” by the BBC, and the loan acquisition of Juventus’ Gonzalo Higuain in the January transfer window could prove to be a canny bit of business by manager Mauricio Sarri.
Chelsea have struggled for goals at times during the season, and the players have been accused of lacking in motivation in the big games.
“Today is all positive, we played a full 90 minutes, defended very well, so it was a very good match but we need consistency now, we have to continue to play with the same mentality in all the matches,” Sarri said, in an interview with the BBC. “I hope in the future we will not need to lose a match to find the right mentality.”
Of course, Huddersfield are little more than cannon fodder at the moment and relegation mentality seems to have set in. They have scored 13 goals all season, a staggering statistic when you consider that there are four EPL players who have more goals on their own – Salah (16), Aubuameyang (Arsenal, 15), Aguero (14) and Harry Kane (injured since January 15, 14 goals to date).
What’s next for the Big Six?
Gameweek 26 throws up a couple of games that could provide more answers to the ongoing questions about who will win the league in May.
Liverpool have the chance to go back to the top, entertaining Bournemouth at Anfield. Spurs continue their recent stay-cation in London with a game against the inconsistent Leicester, while Arsenal will expect to get something from their trip to Huddersfield. Manchester United come back to London to play Fulham, and it is extremely unlikely that the unbeaten run will end at Craven Cottage.
The game of the weekend, however, is in Manchester, as City take on Chelsea. This game (City’s 27th, just to confuse things) will not decide the title, but it is reasonable to think that the result will be of great interest to both Liverpool and Spurs … especially if both of these teams manage to add another three points to their own title challenge.