Why this season’s Premier League is a Game of Thrones-style tussle
It’s been easy to mock the Premier League’s over-blown self-promotion in recent years, but the first half of the 2016/17 season has seen reality catch up with the hype once again. Six bonafide top teams with a realistic shot at the title plus a strong supporting cast including Bournemouth, Everton, West Brom, Southampton, who are all capable of causing problems for anyone have made for utterly compelling viewing. The actual football being played on the pitch has taken centre stage back from assorted controversies and storylines roped in to distract from the dearth of quality before. Underdogs (Leicester City) and miracle workers (Claudio Ranieri) need not apply. There’s no vacancy for surprise saviours this time around.
Instead, it’s become clear at the half-way stage that the much predicted Game of Thrones-esque tussle between half a dozen contenders is indeed in full swing (starring Pep Guardiola as Khaleesi and José Mourinho as the shadow monster.) Although it must be said that part of the script also currently brings to mind the (almost) equally celebrated BBC series Coupling from the early Noughties: the top Premier League managers come in curious pairs this season, brought together by shared success, strife or something less readily defined.
Pep and Mou: behind the curve in Manchester
Only three points separate the best of enemies from the Iberian Peninsula in their first joint campaign in England. The momentum is with currently Mourinho, who’s notched up six wins in row after a desperately poor start, while Guardiola has appeared increasingly agitated by his team’s failings to deliver his desired brand of football - as well as the continued insinuation that the idiosyncrasies of the league are simply too hard for him to get to grips with. The superlative opening weeks (ten wins in a row in all competitions) are long forgotten.
The different trajectories for City (4th) and United (6th) ahead of the FA Cup break cannot disguise that both teams have come well short of expectations, however. Chances are that neither Pep nor José will win the league at first attempt with their new sides, despite considerable investment and total backing by their respective boards.
Failure might be too strong a word to apply in the face of ample competition but there’s no doubt that both were meant to deliver more sustained improvement, more rapidly. Hurt pride aside though, the long-term negative consequences would appear to be minimal. On the contrary, Manchester’s unhappy couple will use the disappointment to their advantage, demanding more expensive tweaks to the squads in transfer windows to come.
Conte and Klopp: part-time lovers
Free midweeks are surely not the sole reason why Chelsea (1st) and Liverpool (2nd) have looked a slight cut above the rest this season but they have undoubtedly helped. Conte’s time-consuming tactical drills and Klopp’s high-energy game plan would be more difficult to employ if Champions League or Europa League fixtures were to drain mental and physical resources.
There’s a freshness to both sides, leading to players appearing rejuvenated or vastly improved, strong togetherness and perhaps most importantly, a sense of humility. By the Galactico standards of City and Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have spent relatively modestly, adding not-so-big-names who have made a big difference in key areas. Above all, the quality of the coaching, a winning combination of know-how and infectious man-management shines through.
Chelsea and Liverpool’s excellence will surely deliver international football next season, which makes this season a golden, one-off opportunity to capitalise on their unusually low work-load.
Wenger and Pochettino: dreams of the title, fear of Thursdays
Are Spurs (3rd) title-winning material? Convincing 2-0 home wins over Man City and Chelsea would suggest so. In between these two statement wins, however, Tottenham crashed out of the Champions League group stage and only won one match in a barren run of ten games. There’s still a doubt about the depth of the squad, especially up front, as well as question marks about their ability to maintain their demanding game-plan to the very end of the season. Six months ago, their title challenge disintegrated amongst dressing room murmurs that Pochettino was working his men a little too hard in training.
That’s not a complaint that’s ever been voiced over on the other side of the North London divide but Arsenal’s final destination is just as unclear as their neighbouring rival’s. A wonderful beginning to the season has brought customary hopes of a first league title since 2004, only to be followed by customary disappointment as injuries and the familiar failings against well-drilled opponents have derailed the Gunner’s challenge.
Wenger’s men, currently in fifth spot with one game in hand; have morphed from title favourites in September to a side worrying about Champions League qualification. Whether the long-suffering faithful will settle for that kind of “stability” will be interesting to see – especially if progress across at White Hart Lane and elsewhere bring about the dreaded Thursday night appointments. Avoiding such a fate must be Pochettino’s top priority, too.