With 7 games left to play, Manchester City would need an unprecedented implosion to avoid claiming the E.P.L. title, but beneath them another story has unfolded.
The Premier League was born into the era of Fergie’s famous ‘Class of ’92’ and in its first season United cantered to the title with Les Ferdinand’s Q.P.R. (5th) the only London team inside the top 7. Arsenal were in a transitional phase, whilst Tottenham and Chelsea were barely contenders. This was football at the turning point of a new era, about to be dominated by the huge finances generated by the Premier League. Incidentally, this also coincided with a rapid increase in the numbers of talented foreign players in the league. That 1992/3 Q.P.R. side only featured one player, (‘keeper Jan Stejskal) from anywhere outside of the U.K.
Northern clubs continued to dominate the ensuing years, with Alan Shearer’s Blackburn, Robbie Fowler-era Liverpool and Andy Cole’s Newcastle all challenging around the top of the table. It took until 96/97 for a London club to break into the top 3, with Arsene Wenger’s arrival and an inspired Ian Wright powering Arsenal to 3rd behind the two Uniteds of Manchester and Newcastle. Arsenal won the title the following year, commencing a decade of fierce rivalry between Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson.
In the twenty years since, at least one London club has finished inside the top three in every single season, with Arsenal (with three titles) and Chelsea (five), recently joined by Tottenham who’ve finished in the top three for the past two years.
During those years, Manchester United have gradually waned from their 90’s exuberance, although their sustained commercial appeal has ensured they continue to compete in the transfer market to supplement their superb production line of young talent. Liverpool have rebuilt 9 times with 9 different managers in the Premier League era and finally seem to have the finances, squad and strategy to challenge for a title. Manchester City were playing in the third tier of English football when Manchester United won their treble back in 1999, but have risen to dominance, helped in no small part by Sheikh Mansour’s millions.
This season, the balance seems to be swinging back northwards, with Manchester City just one win away from a record-breaking title win with six games remaining. With Manchester United regaining the knack of ‘winning ugly’ (as distinguished from losing or at least frequently drawing ugly under Moyes and Van Gaal), two of the most thrillingly unpredictable attacking teams will battle for fourth. If Liverpool can balance the demands of the Champions League (where they meet Manchester City in the quarter finals) with their league run-in, they look to have the easier remaining fixtures and are two points clear of Spurs (although Spurs have a game in hand). If the standings remain as they are (which I predict they will) it will be the first season in twenty-one years for all the London clubs to be squeezed out.
Looking at the run-ins for each of the top clubs, City are already uncatchable. Predicted finish: 1st by a record margin. United currently hold the biggest winning margin at 18 points.
Manchester United will meet City this weekend, but then only have Arsenal (6th) to play from the clubs currently in the top 8, so theoretically have a straight-forward run-in to claim 2nd, although they are also still in the F.A. Cup. Predicted finish: 2nd.
Liverpool only play Chelsea from the top 8, but they also need to negotiate a trip to Goodison for the Merseyside derby in between two Champions League ties against City. Predicted finish: 3rd.
Tottenham have still to play City and Leicester from among the top 8, plus Manchester United in the F.A. Cup, but will be pushing Liverpool right to the wire. Predicted finish: 4th.
Chelsea need to bounce back from their crushing defeat from Spurs last week. Their run-in only includes Liverpool and Burnley from among the top 8, but they are very unlikely to make up the 8 points gap to Spurs. Predicted finish: 5th.
Arsenal look to be out of the race for a Champions League place so may try to emulate Manchester United from last year and seek qualification through winning the Europa League. They only play United and Burnley from the top 8 in their run-in but are 5 points behind Chelsea and surely Chelsea are too good to throw that away now. Predicted finish: 6th.
So what does the future hold? This year, Pep, Jose and Jurgen hold court. Wenger’s (perhaps now under-rated) 21 years at Arsenal are seemingly coming towards a close. Conte is being offered a possible escape from his unhappy relationship with the Chelsea board by PSG. Meanwhile, Pochettino, who has worked wonders on a moderate budget at Spurs and developed a brilliantly entertaining squad of nearly-men, could be tempted by the big money at Chelsea or even bigger money at PSG.
Manchester City are currently head and shoulders above every other team and it will take a significant step up from anyone to challenge them next season. They have a young squad who are clearly enjoying playing together, a brilliant manager, plus the finances to strengthen in defence for next year.
Manchester United look like they’re close to having the ingredients for success but need to find the right combination to bring out the best in those players. I would expect them to continue to improve and be closer to City next season. If they can find the right defensive formula, built around Eric Bailly and find a way to accomodate Rashford, Lingard, Sanchez and Lukaku in attack they will be a force to be reckoned with.
Liverpool will have taken confidence from the progress they’ve shown this season and will expect to be challenging for the title next year. As an attacking force they are as good as anyone, and if they can squeeze past City in the Champions League that could well give the squad the necessary push towards a serious tilt at the title next year.
Meanwhile, with all the uncertainty around the London clubs, the team most likely to break into the top 3 look like Tottenham, although much will depend on whether they can keep hold of Pochettino and avoid selling key players such as Kane, Alli and Eriksen. With the shop window of the World Cup this summer, that is far from assured.
The North-West clubs could be set for another period of dominance over their London rivals.