EPL 2016/17: Why the North London clubs are the teams to beat in the Premier League
At the start of the season, Jose Mourinho, a la 'The Special One' made one of the most insightful remarks in a preseason interview full of sound bytes. When asked about how he would deal with the challenge from crosstown rivals City, Mourinho’s reply – "to speak about one manager, one club, one… I don’t like the word, one enemy. I hate the word in football. And in life. I don’t think that’s right in this country."
"One thing is you are in a competition like I was in Spain, which was a two-horse race. Now, it has become three, but at that time, it was just two. Or when I was in Italy, three teams were fighting for the title. Then, that kind of an approach makes sense. In the Premier League, it doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t make sense at all. Because if you focus too much on one team, in one opponent, the other ones will be laughing – the other ones will be so happy with that. "
"So, I’m not going to be a part of that. I’m Man United manager, with all the respect to all the other clubs in the country." - makes perfect sense as this Premier League season hits the quarter mark.
Leicester failing to make a mark
Last year’s champions Leicester City are slowly finding their feet after a string of high-profile defeats. Notable among these were their losses against Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool. While they have distinguished themselves in the Champions League so far, the loss of their most proactive midfielder in N’Golo Kante has ensured that this campaign will not end nearly as well for them as last summer.
United themselves are already facing the full onslaught of the ruthless pace of the division. Considered by many pundits to be prime candidates for the title at the end of May, Mourinho’s side are currently 6 points off the pace, sitting in 7th position with their tail firmly between their legs. There are some unresolved questions about their best starting lineup. They have already had wretched luck in the injuries department, having lost their most reliable central defender in Bailly with a long-term knee injury.
Their derby rivals are leading the table currently, but even Pep Guardiola admits that his side is far from a finished article. Too often this season, Man City have been guilty of trying to outpass opponents, instead of playing their usually tasty brand of football. As a result of their most recent slide in form, City now find themselves rooted behind Barcelona in the Champions League after a 4-0 thrashing at the Nou Camp.
The other title contenders starting with a new manager this season – Chelsea – are in quite the same stage of title-readiness, although they are not quite as star-studded as they once were. Antonio Conte has improved their rearguard action significantly after getting found out in the early stages of the season. However, even this Chelsea side has significant tactical problems. Their old guard is trying to find its feet in the new formation, after Conte’s pivot to a 3-man defense following their loss to Arsenal.
Can Liverpool sustain their momentum?
Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp are playing some of the most flamboyant, free-flowing and technically demanding football in the league this season, and have grabbed hold of a share of the lead after nine games into the season. Many of the extra fat left by Brendan Rodgers has been systematically trimmed by the bespectacled German, who has made some excellent signings in the past couple of transfer windows.
There are limits, however, to how long their run will continue with their style of play. In recent seasons, an alarming majority of teams have lost pace as the season has progressed – even Chelsea were a distinctly different team in the second half of their title-winning 2014-15 season, as compared to the first half.
Given how hard Klopp’s men work on every matchday, and considering their relatively low squad depth (when pitted against their title rivals), it would be a tough ask for them to contend with their more stable North London rivals.
While there are teams like West Ham, Everton, and Southampton, which are talent-laden teams and act as kingmakers by often inflicting defeats on the traditional powers of the Premier League, they have never been deep enough with their squad strength to mount any season-long challenge for the title.
So far this season, we have only seen Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham Hotspur play a coherent style of football, along with a settled lineup and a sorted tactical setup. Only these teams have demonstrated their true form in extended periods.
All three of these teams brought in significant reinforcements this summer and were able to boast their depth in crucial areas. While Liverpool signed Sadio Mane to adequately replace Raheem Sterling after the intervening period of one year, Arsenal signed a robust centre-back, a world-class deep-lying playmaker, and a pacy striker at the fag end of the transfer window.
North London sides leading the way
While Tottenham Hotspur’s major buy of the summer was their transfer hijack of Moussa Sissoko, they boasted of the Premier League’s stingiest defensive record last season and wore the settled look of a motivated, world-class team immediately after the start of the season.
Pochettino’s men are just 1 point off the pace, having conceded just four goals in 9 games. They are also currently the only unbeaten team in the Premier League. With upcoming fixtures against Leicester City and Arsenal, Tottenham’s defense may just face its sternest test yet in the coming weeks.
Arsenal look the most assured of the top 3 sides, currently. After losing 4-3 at home to Liverpool on the opening day, Wenger’s men have built up solid momentum. New signings Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez have, to varying degrees, increased Arsenal’s strength in depth for the playing XI. Alex Iwobi, Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil have all had solid starts to the season.
Their player of the season thus far, though, has been the resurgent Theo Walcott. The 26-year-old forward has now cemented his place in the starting XI, mostly on the right wing. He has 8 goals so far. With the rest of the team in good nick, the impending return of Ramsey will further bolster their already formidable midfield.
Both Arsenal and Tottenham are well-drilled sides – with playing XIs that have gelled together over the years under their respective managers. They both have a recognizable pattern of play, and also possess the versatility to change tack with respect to the opponent.
North London clubs have underperformed for a long time in the Premier League now. This season could become a thrilling turn of events for either of them, depending on how the rest of the season plays out.
With at least 50 games of the season left to play, injuries all over the league have begun to take a toll. Every team in the league, powered by the record television deals signed this season, have increased their squad depth in an effort to cope with the demands of the taxing British football season. This season could go down in football history as one of the closest-fought battles for the Premier League title ever, and North London clubs would do well to grab hold of this opportunity.