While the final day of the Premier League season briefly threatened to give us a nervous finish – before Manchester City remembered that they were Manchester City and, more importantly, Aston Villa were Aston Villa – it might be stretching things to point to it as evidence of a healthy and competitive league. Yes, one point alone separated the champions from Liverpool; had Jurgen Klopp’s men beaten a shiftless Leicester back in December, the title would have had a different destination. But the bigger concern was that third-place Chelsea sat eighteen points back from the top two.
It’s becoming increasingly hard to dodge the feeling that the Premier League is a personal tactical battle between Klopp and Pep Guardiola, a continuation of their brief spat in the Bundesliga when they managed Dortmund and Bayern respectively. Ask yourself now, can you see the Premier League title ending up in any hands other than Jordan Henderson or (probably) Ilkay Gundogan’s? Let’s look at the runners and riders, and what they need to do to upset the current consensus.
Chelsea: 18 points and a world away
When the Premier League season started, Chelsea were right in the mix to be considered a title contender. Romelu Lukaku seemed to have solved the question of where the goals would come from. Thomas Tuchel looked like he had introduced the defensive grit that Frank Lampard had decided to just completely ignore. But a look across the season shows that the Blues failed to beat Wolves, Everton or Brighton either home or away. While admittedly they did have the mild distraction of being seized by the government as an asset of a Russian oligarch (sort of), the rot had set in before then, shortly after Lukaku gave an interview expressing his discontent with the way things were on the King’s Road.
The Belgian seems set to return – initially on loan – to Inter, while defensive linchpin Antonio Rudiger has signed for Real Madrid. No incoming transfers are seemingly imminent, and Chelsea’s new owners will have their work cut out to hold on to third place.
Tottenham: Still Tottenham
One of the forgotten side stories of Leicester’s 2016 title win is that, had they not maintained their unrelenting form, the most likely alternative winners would have been Tottenham. Six years on, Harry Kane is still no closer to tasting club success, and while he remains in North London would probably have a better chance of winning the Aintree Grand National than the Premier League. Spurs have the players, the style and now even the coach to beat any side on their day. They are, however, still Spurs, and that’s a big obstacle to overcome.
On the 19th of February, a stunning performance saw Tottenham beat Manchester City 3-2. On the 23rd of February, Spurs lost 1-0 to Burnley. That’s the dictionary definition of “Spursy”, and for as long as they remain Spurs, it’s hard to see them breaking the duopoly.
Manchester United: Let’s humour the idea for a moment
When Alex Ferguson stepped down from Manchester United in 2013, the job of taking over from him was described as a “poisoned chalice”. Looking back on the intervening seasons, it may have been the case that the poison was already in the chalice, and Fergie wisely got out of town rather than drink it. Although they have twice been runners-up in recent seasons, Manchester United are not a side anyone sees winning their 21st league title any time soon. Erik ten Hag is a clever appointment, capable of nurturing the flame of talent in young, hungry footballers. At Old Trafford, he needs to drag a season’s worth of football out of an ageing shambles.
If you were to try to get at what’s wrong with Manchester United, the best place to start would be the re-signing of Cristiano Ronaldo to a top-heavy side that could have used a quality holding midfielder. ten Hag is a genius, but he can’t do time travel.