Sunday 19 January 2020

Football's elite players may still reign in Spain, but the Premier League offers more intrigue

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Barcelona's Wednesday night humiliation of Manchester City suggested that no Premier League team currently belongs to the elite of European football. But what the Premier League can offer this season is the continent's best title race.

One reason this year's contest is so intriguing is that, while the very best players in the world continue to ply their trade in La Liga, home of eight of the 11 members of last season's FIFA world XI, the Premier League now possesses the best managers.

The close season manoeuvrings have resulted in the arrival of the most successful managers of recent times in La Liga (Pep Guardiola), Serie A (Antonio Conte) and the Premier League itself (Cranky Boots Mourinho). While Jurgen Klopp may not have won as much in the Bundesliga as Guardiola, there's a strong case to be made that his achievements in overcoming Bayern Munich's massive advantages to bag two titles with Borussia Dortmund makes him that league's outstanding manager of modern times.

The managers of Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool have won 19 league titles between them. Throw in Arsene Wenger and the total rises to 23. Mauricio Pochettino, meanwhile, has never won anything as a manager but with every season the suspicion grows that he is not out of place in this illustrious company.

These brilliant bosses are managing teams who seem to be unusually well matched to the extent that, while they all have a shot at winning the title, they could all equally finish as low as sixth. This is something new for the Premier League after years when no matter what disarray the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City found themselves in, they could usually scrape a place in the top four.

Early predictions that City would run away with the league have been replaced by doubts engendered by their struggles against Celtic, Spurs and Everton. The Barcelona match confirmed the impression of a team with severe defensive weaknesses, not least a goalkeeper in Claudio Bravo who right now looks like Fabien Barthez did during his ill-starred spell at Manchester United, a keeper gone past his best with the potential to single-handedly derail a title challenge.

Suggestions, sparked by their massive spending spree, that United could turn out to be a class above their title rivals also seem ill-founded. For all the talk of Jose Mourinho's tactical wiliness which followed Monday's dull scoreless draw at Anfield, the most striking thing about United's performance was how utterly unambitious it was. It was the kind of performance which lost Louis van Gaal the confidence of the Old Trafford faithful.

Mourinho set up his team as though he were playing Barcelona away, something which suggested a belief in Liverpool as at the very least United's equals. Although they didn't break through on Monday, no team's stock has risen as much since the start of the season as that of Klopp's (below) side. On paper they may lack the quality of the big three but they have definitely emerged as legitimate title challengers, their manager's boundless self-belief apparently having transmitted itself to his players.

Spurs, as impressive in defence as Liverpool are going forward, have also pushed their way into the title picture. Last season's late meltdown seems to have been purged from their system. With a quarter of the season gone, it appears that City, United and Chelsea are not as good as we had expected and Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal are all a bit better.

Ah yes, Arsenal. Flying both at home in the league and Europe, they look like the best team in the top flight at the moment. Yet the suspicion remains that the Gunners under Wenger are, like Mayo, an outfit which will always find some way to fall just short. If the other teams could finish anywhere between first and sixth, Arsenal's range of possibilities may lie between second and fourth.

United have been the least impressive side of all so far, yet Mourinho may be the happiest manager. Their struggles could have left them with a sizable gap to make up even at this early stage, but the inconsistency of their rivals leaves them well in touch and knowing that Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will inevitably come good as the season progresses.

The best candidate to become this season's Leicester are Everton, but there won't be a Leicester this year. The Foxes may struggle this term but we probably have them to thank for this year's magnificent contest. Last season they stripped the big clubs of excuses for underachievement. If Leicester could win a Premier League, then no manager could hide behind excuses of not being given enough money or being in transition. The result is the best Premier League since the glory days of almost a decade ago.

Chances are that the pressure on the new wave of super-bosses will make things improve further. It might not have looked like it on Wednesday, but the fightback against La Liga's European hegemony has begun in earnest.

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