Wednesday 26 July 2017

Where does this Chelsea side rank among the great Premier League winners?

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte is lifted up by his players
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte is lifted up by his players

Miguel Delaney

It is an issue that has clearly rankled with the Chelsea players. Because, if there has long been little doubt that they would win the league, there has been growing debate over how they have won it and what allowed them to win it.

More than a few managers have talked about the lack of European football, others have questioned the “counter-attacking” style, and it all led to a strong response from Gary Cahill over the weekend.

“Everybody else talks about the reasons why and makes excuses,” the centre-half told the Evening Standard.

“But we just kept our mouths shut and then you reach this moment, where nobody can argue that we are the best team in this League. We have the best players in this League because we have produced the best results.

"You have to work day in, day out for that trophy. The cups come and go, but the league is every single week.”

A two-time title winner, Cahill perfectly summed up what elevates a league win as an achievement. It requires that baseline of quality, with the length of the campaign effectively testing every aspect of a squad in a way a knock-out just can’t.

It also feeds into a more fun debate, that all of the questions about Chelsea also touch on: who are the best Premier League champions, and what did they overcome to get there.

While all title winners obviously deserve that respect that Cahill demanded, you clearly deserve more respect if you manage to hold off particularly strong challengers; if you can maintain that level while also doing well in the cups; while also doing well in Europe.

Winning the league and Champions League is surely the gold-standard achievement, given that it displays a side has mastered every test. It is also why figures like highest points hauls and goals records don’t tell the full story, since different seasons can have different dynamics or levels of opposition.

Given all that, where do this Chelsea actually rank among their fellow champions?

1 – Manchester United 2007-08

(Points per game: 2.29 Other trophies: Champions League)

With one of the finest defences English football has ever seen, with Cristiano Ronaldo reaching another level, and with the way the Chelsea team they held off were also beaten in the Champions League final, this was probably Alex Ferguson’s most complete United side.

2 – Chelsea 2004-05 (2.5, League Cup)

They weren’t quite invincible, but they often felt untouchable. Whatever about all the debate about Jose Mourinho now, there could be no debate about the overwhelming quality of his first champions. This Chelsea recorded the highest points-per-game record in English history, and simply never looked like they were going to be caught.

3 – Manchester United 1998-99 (2.08, Champions League, FA Cup)

Perhaps the most entertaining champions of all, but that is oddly the only reason they are not top of this list. They were not necessarily the best league champions, but the most resilient. They were easy to get at, but that weakness made them great and made them entertaining because of how many spectacular comebacks it brought. They won the title with a surprisingly low 79 points.

4. Arsenal 2003-04 (2.37, none)

An utterly divine side, and Arsenal’s greatest… but also one responsible for one of football’s great ironies. Arsene Wenger’s best team went unbeaten in the league, only to lose the biggest game of all – the Champions League quarter-final – to a team a few miles away in Chelsea.

5 – Manchester United 2008-09 (2.37, League Cup)

Not quite as commanding as the previous season, as illustrated by how they just fell in the Champions League final and also recorded fewer points in a more stuttering campaign, but showed immense reserve to respond to Liverpool’s surge.

6 – Arsenal 2001-02 (2.29, FA Cup)

A beautifully balanced team, and one that went on a brutally devastating run to sweep all competition away. These were the double-winners that claimed 13 league wins in a row, while also clinching the title away to United.

7 – Arsenal 1997-98 (2.05, FA Cup)

One of the great title comebacks, from one of the great football revolutions. Wenger’s transformation of the old guard saw them go into overdrive towards the end of the season and win 10 in a row, including a double.

8 – Chelsea 2009-10 (2.26, none)

The top-scoring team in Premier League history, who roared to a double, but the only lingering question is whether they quite had top-class opposition.

9 – Chelsea 2016-17 (2.44, FA Cup final reached)

This was hyped as one of the most competitive leagues ever, given it had its finest ever collection of managers so, whatever about the debate regarding the lack of European football, it reflects very well on this Chelsea that they have ultimately won it so easily and so early. That cannot be talked around easily.

10 – Manchester City 2011-12 (2.34, none)

So nearly threw it away on more than one occasion, but that only made their eventual win all the more spectacular. Their points haul is also hugely creditable for first-time champions, not least for how it saw them hold off all the title experience of Ferguson’s United.

Independent News Service

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