Monday 22 January 2018

Empires strike back - and battles of top six more crucial than ever

Leicester's title triumph proving a one-off as the major powers dominate the league once again

Miguel Delaney

If last season was supposed to provide new hope for money-conditioned modern football, with the way Leicester City so defied every imaginable barrier to spectacularly win the league, the response this season has been as emphatic as it has been unmistakeable: the empires have struck back. With extreme prejudice.

The new 'big six' - of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City - are restoring an old sense of order not really seen in the Premier League since 2009.

One figure sums it up even more than the nine-point gap between sixth-placed United and seventh-placed Everton. In the 200 games of the 2016-17 season so far, the bottom 14 have only taken 51 points from the wealthiest six. It was 106 at the same stage in the wilds of 2015-16, but still 81 in 2014-15 and 66 in 2013-14.

In other words, it is not just that there is a gap between the best-resourced and the rest, and little scope for anyone else to even run them close in the table. It is that there doesn't even seem as much hope of the lesser sides getting single results off them. The rest of the Premier League are, in effect, being depressingly steamrolled.

Arsene Wenger argued as much on New Year's Day, just after Arsenal's win over Crystal Palace, saying: "Maybe everyone thought at the start of the season it would be close with the other teams but you see a proper top six now."

His side then went and drew in chaotic circumstances away to Bournemouth, but that still just made a total of nine points dropped to 'the bottom 14' by Arsenal and didn't prevent Jan Vertonghen echoing Wenger's sentiments after Spurs' win over Chelsea. "Since November it is like that the only moment where the teams drop points is when play against each other," he said.

How the top six have fared against each other
How the top six have fared against each other

The feeling throughout the richest clubs, then, is clear. United will feel it only too well, given that they are in the best recent form of all the top six having won their last six games, but still haven't moved up a single place in the table.

The reasons for all this are just as clear, and connected to why last season was so open. Pretty much all of the top clubs bar Arsenal and Tottenham underperformed in 2015-16, leading to four of them opting for the maximum response of going for the best managers in the world. Liverpool did so as early as October, giving Jurgen Klopp even more of a platform to get the team fully firing for this season, before City went for Pep Guardiola, United for Jose Mourinho and Chelsea for Antonio Conte.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

The 'league of managers' has more than lived up to that hype, then. That cannot be denied. It is not just the effect of their personalities, but also the sophistication of their tactics, and how they then push each other. Even Wenger, after all, has taken some of the tenets of Klopp's pressing, with that in itself influenced by Guardiola's. After another slow start, Mauricio Pochettino, meanwhile, looks like he might be able to get Spurs to kick on even more.

Mourinho has impressively adapted himself, and Conte has used Chelsea's 2015-16 problems to blindside the entire division. The unexpected extent of his impact reflects how there has never been such a concentration of managerial quality in the Premier League while combined with such resources.

There also hasn't been a closed shop like this since the 'big four' era of 2004-09, when United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal didn't let any other club qualify for the Champions League. Except, of course, it's that bit more open and volatile now.

There are six clubs trying to get into four places, and thereby claim the one spot that really matters. That challenge fosters the illusion of competitiveness for the whole Premier League, even though that is not the case. You still can't deny, however, that it is hugely engaging at the top end.

It has created some sensational top-six encounters, light years from the dreariness of those 2004-09 games, and that is probably the biggest consequence and effect of this too.

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It is not just that those matches will be more spectacular, either. It is that they will have more significance.

That might just change how the league is won. For most of the last few years, and most of Alex Ferguson's last few titles, the general rule has been that if you win a critical mass of matches against the lesser clubs you will do enough to go very close. United dropped just 12 points to those outside the current richest 14 in 2012-13, for example, 11 in 2008-09 and 14 in 2007-08.

If all six are generally beating everyone else, though, that is no longer enough. The thin margins in the bigger games will have far wider impact.

The extremes of Liverpool's season arguably exemplify this. They have the worst record against the bottom 14, having dropped 12 points, but the best record against the rest of the top six. That has made them Chelsea's primary challengers so far.

Of course Conte's side have the best record against the rest of the Premier League, having dropped just two points - to Swansea City in a 2-2 September draw - but it is telling that they are still only five points clear, and that a defeat to another of the top six in Spurs is perceived to have opened up the title race again.

This feeling could really be made concrete over the next few weeks, given that Chelsea face Liverpool and Arsenal in their next four league matches.

Of course it's possible that the trend could change as the season goes on, and the number of variables to the competition - from injuries to the pressure of the race itself - also create more variety in results. We may yet see a response.

So far, though, Wenger has made the challenge clear, maintaining: "You have to win against your rivals, especially at home."

It could be more important than ever in bringing the title home.

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