The Premier League has never been this competitive. Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the division and the result has been a surprising levelling effect as top clubs struggle to cope with the changing variables of the new normal.
Fatigue, both mental and physical, has seen pressing drop significantly as errors increase and football matches become overly improvised. A truncated pre-season and minimal time on the training field during the week has led to a marked tactical regression across the division, in turn reducing the control big clubs can have over smaller ones.
The pandemic’s impact on Premier League football will not be resolved this season. The bigger clubs face a busy schedule when European competition restarts in February and the crisis of injuries and fatigue will only worsen as the season wears on and players wrack up more minutes.
As the big clubs lose control, the smaller ones gain it. Most outside the ‘Big Six’ are already geared towards playing on the counter-attack by sitting deep and absorbing pressure, whereas the elite are expected to have the tactical nous to break them down. When tactics fade, those capable of quick breaks and deep defensive lines become more effective.
Seven points separate the top ten in a season that is only going to get harder for the traditional big hitters. It is no exaggeration to say any of them could put a sequence together and lift the title. Certainly it seems unlikely there will ever be a better chance of someone emulating Leicester City’s success in 2016.
Liverpool – P17, 33pts
Clearly Liverpool are among the favourites despite winning just two of their last five league games. This is likely to be the low-point of their domestic campaign, and even in the midst of the run Jurgen Klopp’s side remain at the summit of the table.
However, their injury record shows no sign of improving and the fine margins that defined their title win last year – many games were won by a single goal – have been eroded. In fact, since losing 3-0 to Watford last February Liverpool have won just 53 points from 28 league games.
They are not a sure bet.
Manchester United – P16, 33pts
In a normal season Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would not be good enough, tactically, to mount a title challenge. Man Utd lack detail, largely improvising their attacks as they rely on Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford for form, but since this is a peculiarly regressive campaign United stand a chance.
Then again, this is a highly emotional team who are overly reliant on confidence, an inevitable consequence of lacking tactical sophistication. Individualistic, improvisational teams are volatile and prone to dips in form. Just like the good run after Solskjaer took interim charge, and just like the unbeaten run at the end of last season, United’s current form will end.
When it does, a title challenge could well collapse.
Leicester City – P17 32pts
Brendan Rodgers’s side are difficult to read, capable of superb performances and equally capable of suddenly disappearing in matches. Leicester’s reliance on explosive vertical football isn’t necessarily suited to the low-tempo and exhausting nature of this particular season, and yet they cannot be ignored given their current points tally.
Jamie Vardy, Harvey Barnes, James Maddison, and Youri Tielemans have been superb this season and if they can maintain form for the rest of the season then Leicester are definitely in the race. After all, first-team players Vardy, Kasper Schmeichel, Christian Fuchs, and Marc Albrighton have been here before.
Should Leicester hang on in the title race up until ten games remaining, then they are arguably best placed to keep their nerve.
Tottenham Hotspur – P16 29pts
In theory, Jose Mourinho’s tactics are perfectly suited to pandemic football. His conservative instincts, deeper defensive line, and focus on counter-attacks is the most obvious way to control matches in an era when tactical coaching is diminished; if the Premier League has regressed by ten years, who better to have in charge than the best manager in the world in 2010?
A reliance on Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane could be a problem, of course, but if Mourinho can find a Plan B then Spurs have a good chance.
They are just emerging out of a bad patch and are still only four points off the top, which suggests Tottenham will be in the conversation right to the end.
Mourinho knows how to galvanise a team for a title challenge better than anyone. That could count for a lot in the spring.
Manchester City – P15 29pts
Pep Guardiola has quietly found a way to control the Covid-19 variables, doubling down on slow possession football to ensure his City team don’t become embroiled in the chaos. Their excellent defensive record has provided a strong foundation and the Chelsea performance suggests City can now build on that in the final third.
Their obsession with hogging the ball can be tedious to watch, but City are now closing in on the top of the table. With John Stones enjoying a renaissance and Sergio Aguero almost back from injury, perhaps Man City will now surge to the summit of the table.
Southampton – P17 29pts
Ralph Hasenhuttl was in tears after his side beat Klopp’s Liverpool on Monday night. Could it be the beginning of something truly special at Southampton? They are now only four points away from Liverpool, a gap that technically puts them in the title race, and Saints are one of the most coherent and tactically-astute clubs in the division.
If Hasenhuttl can use this win as a springboard over the next month then Southampton can certainly outperform the likes of Everton and Aston Villa. At the very least they are in a genuine fight for the top four.
Everton – P16 29pts
Carlo Ancelotti’s team haven’t been in the title conversation since they won four in a row at the beginning of the season, but they cannot be ruled out – mainly because Ancelotti continues to find solutions to problems as they emerge. First he moved to a 3-4-3 that solved the issue of James Rodriguez not tracking back, and then he switched to using centre-backs at full-back to shore up the defence.
Three times he has switched formation and results have improved, keeping opponents on their toes and keeping Everton within touching distance of the summit.
By the end of the month Allan and Lucas Digne will be back from injury, too, which should produce another spurt of good form, while a lack of European football will give Everton a major advantage over the elite teams from February.
Aston Villa – P15 26pts
Similarly Villa have no European football to deal with, meaning they will consistently get full weeks of training between games before facing exhausted and over-worked opponents. Dean Smith’s side are a dark horse who stand a very good chance of squeezing into the top four, largely because of their ability to play in two distinct styles.
Thanks to the brilliance of Jack Grealish, Douglas Luiz, and John McGinn, Villa are capable of playing expansive attacking football against mid-table Premier League clubs, and thanks to the tactical work undertaken by John Terry and Craig Shakespeare Villa know how to sit deep and counter against bigger teams. Smith’s side can go one point off top if they win their games in hand, while the manager has shown a very good knack of learning from mistakes and rapidly improving over time.
Chelsea – P17 26pts
Chelsea are at a very low ebb at the moment, but there is still plenty of time for Frank Lampard to turn things around; reports indicate Roman Abramovich will stick with him for the time being. The sheer talent in the Chelsea attack suggests they can still win the title despite an alarming absence of tactical detail coming from the dugout, and if Kai Havertz and Timo Werner can settle then Chelsea will be transformed.
Things can’t get much worse than they are right now.
Natural progression to the mean should ensure Chelsea’s form improves soon, and as Hakim Ziyech gets back to full fitness the sheer individual quality in the team suggests wins are just around the corner. Before long, Chelsea will be back in the top four and the press will reverse their position again.
West Ham – P17 26pts
OK, this one is a little bit of a stretch, but somehow David Moyes’s side are only four points off the top four. Again, there really is no reason to assume the Premier League will settle down into a different pattern, which means West Ham are technically in the conversation.
Michail Antonio’s return from injury will definitely help them turn a few more of those draws into wins, and even with Arsenal recovering West Ham look ready for a top ten finish. In this most absurd of seasons, the difference between top ten and top four will be razor thin. The tiniest bit of luck could swing West Ham’s season in an unlikely direction.