Tuesday 27 September 2016

Does anyone want to win the Premier League?

It's been a topsy-turvy season with no team pulling away and the champions may win it with a record low points tally. Jack Pitt-Brooke explains why

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Published 01/12/2015 | 02:30

Jamie Vardy’s goals have helped keep Leicester near the top of the table since the start of the season
Jamie Vardy’s goals have helped keep Leicester near the top of the table since the start of the season

Being champion of the most lucrative sporting competition in the world ought to be attractive, but watching the Premier League so far this season might suggest otherwise.

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The title race is barely a race at all, with each of the plausible winners marked more by their flaws than their strengths.

One team will have to finish top on May 15, 2016 but if any of them particularly wants to win it, they have not made that clear in the first third of the campaign.

This is obvious to anyone who has watched the Premier League this season, but is also borne out by the numbers.

Manchester City and Leicester City, joint top, are averaging 2.07 points per game so far. That standard would leave them, after 38 games, with 78.7 points, making them the weakest champions for almost 20 years.

It was the late 1990s, a footballing lifetime ago, when any side won the Premier League with a points total that low. Arsenal took the title in 1997-'98 with 78, Manchester United in 1996-'97 with 75.

All champions since United's Treble season of 1998-'99, when they totalled 79 points, have amassed 80 or more. Thirteen of those have been with 85 points or higher, five with 90 or more.

The average points total for the champions, since the Premier League went to 20 teams in 1995, is 85.7.

All of which prompts the question: what has happened to England's elite teams?

Why is no side this year anywhere near the level of the great sides of recent years, from Arsene Wenger's Invincibles (90 points), to the last three years of Cristiano Ronaldo (89, 87, 90 points), or Jose Mourinho's first two titles at Chelsea (95 and 91 points)?

What is true in the Premier League is also true of the Champions League. England has had no finalists since Chelsea's surprising win in 2012, and only one semi-finalist, Chelsea in 2014, since then.

Between 2005 and 2009, the Premier League provided two Champions League winners and four more runners-up. That looks a very long time ago now.

But, while the level of England's top teams has dropped off, each side has its own story and explanation.

Upsetting

When Chelsea won last season's title, just six months ago, they looked like a side ready to dominate English football for the next few years.

But they began this term as if the experience of winning the title had been so upsetting that they did not want to do it again for a few years.

Chelsea's start was the worst title defence in modern history. Even now, with the team stabilised and having finally kept three consecutive clean sheets, they are in danger of being knocked into the Europa League, and are averaging only very slightly more than one point per game, and are 14 points off the modest pace Manchester City and Leicester City have set.

Manchester City should be the obvious beneficiaries of Chelsea's collapse. They have the strongest squad in the league, having added Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, at a combined cost of more than £100m, to last season's squad, as well as Nicolas Otamendi.

At times this season City's new generation have combined to help them play some brilliant football, and they are still the best team in England at racking up big scores in easy home games.

Despite this, there is a fragility to City which does not befit a side with serious pretensions of being champions.

When they lose, they lose badly - 4-1 at Spurs in September, 4-1 to Liverpool in November.

They still have to go to the Emirates, Anfield and Stamford Bridge, and those heavy defeats are very liable to happen again.

This side does not have the solidity of Roberto Mancini's champions in 2011-'12 or even the consistency of Manuel Pellegrini's first season.

Then there is Arsenal, who should have been well set after the signing of Petr Cech, but have slipped back into their annual late-autumn injury crisis.

They have taken two points from their last three Premier League games, dropping down to fourth, and are now without their best player Alexis Sanchez and the brains of the team Santi Cazorla going into the most important month of the season so far.

Manchester United are probably the most consistent team in the league. They have the best defence, having conceded just 10 goals, and three of those were in one freakish spell at the Emirates when they simply failed to turn up.

The style of football is winning few admirers, not least among United fans, but the team could very plausibly grind their way to their first title in three years.

And yet this year's champions are likely to be one of those four sides, despite their obvious flaws.

If Leicester City could sustain their strong start, it would be the greatest story in modern English football, but the chances of that happening are remote.

The two dark horse candidates - Liverpool and Tottenham - will probably be overburdened by the Europa League in the new year.

Each big team, then, has its own story. The explanation for the new competitive balance lies elsewhere.

"The top teams may not be as good as they were," says columnist Danny Higginbotham, "but it is more that the smaller clubs are stronger than they were."

The main story of the transfer window earlier this summer was the ability of the mid-ranking clubs to buy quality players.

Television revenues helped bring Yohan Cabaye to Crystal Palace, Dimitri Payet to West Ham, Xherdan Shaqiri to Stoke City, Andre Ayew to Swansea City and so forth.

The evidence of this season is that these signings have largely had a positive effect. Payet, to choose the best new import, was brilliant in defeats of Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea.

But there has been a more fundamental change in how the Premier League is played, which is the ending of the era of home advantage.

Nine Premier League teams have more points away from home than at home this season, while two have picked up as many points at home as they have away.

Teams want the support of their fans, but they do not always want the obligation to take control of the game that comes with it.

Default

"Counter-attacking is now the key to the Premier League," Higginbotham says. "The middle-tier teams, their default mode is to play on the counter-attack."

With more and more sides - Payet's West Ham being one example, high-flying Leicester City being another - keen to sit deep and hit opponents on the break, this makes life easier for the smaller clubs, who can make this their speciality, and are rarely obliged to take the initiative.

"The big clubs have to play as the home team everywhere they go, and only if they score early do they earn the right to play on the break," explains Higginbotham.

"But the smaller clubs get to play on the break away, and even in some of their home games, when they are hosting the bigger teams. It is a bizarre turn of events."

With all of the big teams dropping more points than ever to their counter-attacking inferiors, whichever side adjusts quickest to the new reality may end up as the season's unlikely champions.

Independent News Service

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