This article appeared on my old blog originally on 9th February 2016
The English top flight this year has perhaps been the most entertaining for a neutral since the inception of the Premier League. The big story is Leicester City, but as you move down the table all sorts of other sub plots are developing. The question is will it simply be a one off, or are we witnessing the start of a new order amongst England’s Elite?
Let’s start at the top with Leicester City. I won’t talk about what they’ve already achieved this season because anyone reading this should already have a good grasp of where they are. However with the run in they have Leicester City have to now be favourites for the Premier League title. I never thought I’d type that sentence. After their Valentine’s Day crunch match with Arsenal they don’t really face anybody of serious note through to the end of the season. Man Utd and Chelsea are on the list, but given their recent form I think points are there for the taking. Let this sink in: Leicester City are favourites for the Premier League title.
I’ve read lots of condescending articles about how they’ve done it or asking if they can see it out, and before their excellent win in Manchester very few people expected the challenge to last. It doesn’t matter how ‘bad’ Man City supposedly were, the Foxes did them in their own back yard with a degree of style and panache. They don’t play a possession game, they seem content to soak up the pressure and attack at speed on the break. Mahrez has been inspirational and at £400,000 has to be one of the biggest bargains of all time. He is living proof that a £49m transfer fee won’t buy you success, but hard work will go some way to bringing it your way, and his guile has helped them sustain a challenge.
However with the likes of Vardy and Drinkwater also shining there has to be a late selection headache for Roy Hodgson ahead of the Euro’s. Will he go with the old guard, or can he usher in a brave new world with the players currently doing it week in, week out in the top division. Who knows?
For my money the race for the title is a two horse race, and the second horse is the constantly under achieving Tottenham Hotspur. They have two season defining games in the league, namely against Man City this weekend and then Arsenal on March 5th. Both games must yeild something if they’re to keep the pressure on. They do have a slight psychological advantage in having already beaten Leicester this season but have the big disadvantage of still fighting in the Europa League and FA Cup. I’m fairly sure Pochettino would prefer to win the league than the other two competitions, but with a larger squad at his disposal I think clever management could see them push on at least two fronts. Much rests on them turning up for their two big games and keeping the pressure on.
I suspect that you can write Arsenal and Man City off. City have really scored a massive own goal announcing the arrival of Pep Guardiola and I think that showed in their recent defeat to Leicester. Pellergini can talk all he wants about remaining focused but football is like any business and in my business when a manager is leaving the team take their eye off the ball. I boldly predict a defeat against Spurs and further dropped points against Man Utd and Liverpool will see them too far behind to catch the other two up. A May 5th clash with Arsenal will be more likely to secure a Champions League spot than anything.
Speaking of Arsenal they have seemingly once again shied away from taking advantage of a great position. After bringing in Petr Cech I thought Wenger had finally spotted the weaknesses in his team and was moving to fill them. After securing a world class keeper he now needed a commanding midfield player and another striker, but instead he reverted to type and ignored the glaringly obvious need for two key players. Giroud is doing relatively well, but as a sole striker for a team battling in three competitions I think the load will be a burden later on. Clashes with Arsenal and Man City are vital but I think a step too far with the injuries they have. Sanchez hasn’t looked a sharp since returning and the Gunners look a little shy in front of goal.
So two teams who haven’t broke the bank climb the league with players who arrived with small reputations or emerged from youth ranks. Mahrez and Vardy didn’t cost £1.5m between them, and Dele Ali and Harry Kane look like England internationals for many years to come. The fact that three of those four are England players bodes well for us in the summer.
From next season though the riches available to every single club in the Premier League almost sets a level playing field when it comes to player recruitment. . The fact I haven’t mentioned Chelsea up until now gives you an insight into how much this year’s competition has changed from recent years, and once next season dawns the smaller teams with potential can utilise a war chest like never before. I think Stoke have rolled the dice early and invested some cash into ensuring they are there to take their slice, and this transfer window Newcastle United did exactly the same thing.
Moving to Newcastle and it was some surprise they really went for broke in January, especially after Mike Ashley was criticised in previous seasons for not investing. However Ashley knows his apples when it comes to making a buck, and after being sent packing from Rangers he knows Newcastle are his only hope for carrying the Sports Direct brand forward. They have to stay in the Premier League and signing the likes of Townsend and Shelvey shows they have every intention of doing so. It remains to be seen if Ashley cashes out once the big bucks start rolling in though, and my gut feeling is his might just do that.
The bottom of the Premier league poses a real danger this season, far more than ever before. The potential loss of a meal ticket once that money starts rolling in. In 1992 Luton Town and Notts County just missed out on the riches of the Premier League and were relegated from the old First Division, and neither have featured in top flight since. They missed out on Skys millions and plummeted into football wilderness. That lost revenue was crucial, and with no parachute payments they both struggled. The year after Palace, Forest and Middlesbrough all came down and all have tasted Premier League football since thanks to the money they got.
So this season could be a really defining one for the teams slipping out of the top flight, and I fear immensely for Aston Villa. They’ve left themselves a mountain to climb and I can’t see the quality or consistency there to put a run together. Norwich City have encountered a dangerous run of poor form and sloppy football though, and they too will do well to turn things around between now and May.
I think for Bournemouth it is far more crucial than for anyone that they stick around long enough to get some of that cash. As the smallest of the Premier League sides they perhaps need that money much more than most, and to drop out now could be catastrophic for them in the coming years. They’re there on merit and certainly haven’t been shamed but of all the teams in the Premier League I think they have a real capacity to sink down the divisions in the style of Notts County and Luton almost 25 years ago.
I won’t be drawn on whether it will happen though. That third relegation spot can throw up a few surprises and I imagine they’ll have to battle with Sunderland and WBA for it. I’m confident however that Newcastle and Swansea will stay up as I think both have the form and the players to preserve their status and ensure that the big bucks start rolling in.
So come May it may well be that Leicester or Spurs could finally write another name on the list of Premier League winners. I just sincerely hope that when England take to the pitch against Russia on June 11th that the players that put them there are given their chance to shine.