As Premier League heads into business end of season, no clear favorite has emerged
If you thought the first part of the Premier League season was wonky, there is likely a lot more of that coming when the games resume on Tuesday, following a seven-day break. With about 21 matchdays remaining, there could be many more absurd results and surprises in the standings.
Because the first raft of games before the break was marked not only by stunning upsets – Liverpool losing 7-2 at Aston Villa; Tottenham Hotspur hammering Manchester United 6-1 away – but a table that looks unrecognizable with Chelsea in ninth place and Arsenal in 11th with the halfway point nearly reached.
The many complications presented by this unusual pandemic season, including the short offseason, the brief preseason, the late start and the compressed schedule, have disrupted the rules of soccer’s gravity. Big clubs are vulnerable; small ones emboldened.
A kind of quasi-parity has broken out. The top-seven teams are just four points apart. The top 10 are separated by a mere seven points. Presently, Manchester United, of all teams, leads the league in points-per-game at 2.06; the Red Devils are behind leaders Liverpool on goal difference although both clubs have 33 points, but United retains a game in hand. That puts United on pace to finish the season with just 78 points.
The last time anybody won the league with that few points was Arsenal in the 1997-98 season. The last four champions had 93 points or more. The last three averaged 99 points.
As such, there is no obvious favorite.
Defending champions Liverpool lead for now, but they have barely won more than half of their games and are beset by long-term injuries to their three best central defenders. United is so mercurial and prone to long swoons that its very presence in the title race feels like an upset, no matter its abundant attacking options. Leicester City is well-coached and impeccably organized but not as talented as when it won it the league in 2016.
Tottenham has a thin squad and hasn’t yet shown itself capable of scratching out the tough results you need to lift the title. Manchester City keeps spilling points needlessly, like last season. Chelsea is capable of either defending well or attacking well but can’t seem to do both at the same time. And Arsenal, well, Arsenal is also a team in the Premier League.
But a few factors will conspire to make the remainder of the season even wilder.
A new variant of the coronavirus is roaring through Great Britain. A third national lockdown has been called and even though professional soccer is allowed to continue, for now, some games will inevitably be postponed. And that’s if the entire league isn’t paused again. All that will do is contribute to the pileup of games.
When players aren’t out with positive COVID-19 tests, injuries have soared rather predictably, given that soccer players were pushed to the limit long before the pandemic asked even more of them.
But that’s not all. The late winter and early spring will bring the return of European competition, dialing up the importance of games. That will limit the big teams in how much they can rotate their squads. They will need their strongest lineup for more and more games, inflicting further wear and tear on their legs.
There doesn’t appear to be much help on the way for those clubs. So far this transfer window, United signed Amad Diallo from Atalanta and City landed Filip Stevanovic from Partizan Belgrado. But both are teenagers and still very much prospects. And just about all Premier League teams are trying to unload excess players before they venture out to sign major upgrades.
And then there’s a group of teams that has punched well above its weight this season. Everton, Southampton, Aston Villa and West Ham United may lack in prestige but they are well-drilled sides with a few key attacking players. All four have winning records and are capable of beating a Big Six team – or Big Seven, if you feel that Leicester has cemented its place in the big time.
There is no telling how any of this will turn out. Five different teams, Liverpool, United, Leicester, Spurs and City, are still realistically in the title race. Chelsea is a strong month from joining them, if it can reverse its current form.
All that we can say for sure is that the new champion won’t be one that is remembered as an all-time great team, like the last few were, making for a tight tussle for the title. And that we likely won’t have a resolution to the season until the final weeks.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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