Not a clear favorite as the season leaves the holidays
If you thought the first part of the Premier League season was shaky, there is likely a lot more to come of it when games resume on Tuesday after a seven-day hiatus. With around 21 game days remaining, there could still be many absurd results and surprises in the overall standings.
The first series of games before the break was not only characterized by breathtaking surprises – Liverpool lost 7-2 at Aston Villa; Tottenham Hotspur pounded Manchester United 6-1 away – but a table that is almost unrecognizable at halftime with Chelsea in ninth place and Arsenal in eleventh place.
The many complications of this unusual pandemic season, including the short off-season, short preseason, late start, and compressed schedule, have disrupted the rules of gravity in football. Big clubs are vulnerable; small encourages.
A kind of quasi-parity has broken out. The top 7 teams are only four points apart. The top 10 are only separated by seven points. Manchester United is currently leading the league with 2.06 points per game. The Red Devils are behind leaders Liverpool in terms of goal difference despite both clubs having 33 points but United keep one game in hand. With that, United is well on its way to ending the season with just 78 points.
The last time anyone won the league with those few points was Arsenal in 1997/98. The last four champions had 93 points or more. The last three averaged 99 points.
As such, there isn’t an obvious favorite.
Defending champions Liverpool are leading for the time being but they have barely won more than half of their games and suffer from long-term injuries to their top three center-backs. United is so high in mercury and prone to prolonged fainting that its presence in the title race feels like a surprise regardless of its numerous attack options. Leicester City is well trained and perfectly organized, but not as talented as it was when it won the league in 2016.
Tottenham have a thin squad and have not yet proven themselves capable of pulling out the tough results you need to take the title. Manchester City are shedding points unnecessarily, as they did last season. Chelsea are capable of either defending well or attacking well, but cannot do both at the same time. And Arsenal, well, Arsenal are a team in the Premier League too.
But a couple of factors will make the rest of the season even wilder.
A new variant of the coronavirus is roaring across the UK. A third national suspension has been imposed and while professional football is allowed to continue, some games will inevitably be postponed for the time being. And that’s if the entire league doesn’t stop again. All you can do is pile up.
Unless players pass positive COVID-19 tests, injuries have increased quite predictably as soccer players reached their limits long before the pandemic demanded more from them.
But that’s not all. Late winter and early spring will bring the return of European competition and increase the importance of the games. That will limit the big teams in how much they can turn their squads. They will need their strongest lineups for more and more games, which will add further wear and tear to their legs.
There doesn’t seem to be much help going on getting to these clubs. So far, United has signed Amad Diallo from Atalanta and City Filip Stevanovic from Partizan Belgrado in this transfer window. But both are teenagers and still very promising. And almost all Premier League teams try to dump excess players before signing major upgrades.
And then there is a group of teams that are well above their weight this season. Everton, Southampton, Aston Villa and West Ham United may not have any prestige, but they are well-trained teams with some key attackers. All four have winning records and are capable of beating a Big Six team – or Big Seven if you think Leicester has cemented its place in big time.
There is no telling how this will develop. Five different teams, Liverpool, United, Leicester, Spurs and City are still realistic in the title race. Chelsea are a strong month away from joining if they can reverse their current form.
All we can say for sure is that the new champion won’t be someone to be remembered like the last as a great team of all time, resulting in a close battle for the title. And that we will probably only have a solution for the season in the last few weeks.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a columnist at Emox News and a lecturer in sports communications at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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