Thursday December 3rd, 2015

This is a most unusual Premier League season. Fourteen games in, none of the expected title favorites has settled into any kind of consistent form and the result is a league table that is extremely tightly bunched, with four teams separated by two points at the top of the table, Tottenham two behind that group and Liverpool two behind Spurs. Most tellingly, the leaders, Manchester City and Leicester City, have 29 points: only once in the past 17 years has the leader had a lower total with 14 games of the season gone.

If that were extrapolated over a full season, the champion would end up with 79 points. Not since 1998-99 has a Premier League been won with fewer than 80. A comparison with that one other season when the leaders at this stage had fewer than 30 points, 2010-11, is revealing. After 14 games then, Chelsea, with 28 points, led the table from Manchester United on goal difference with Arsenal two points back and Manchester City a point behind them (Bolton, now languishing in the relegation zone in the Championship was fifth).

Chelsea, the champion, was in its second–and, as it turned out, final–season under Carlo Ancelotti. It had begun the season well, winning its first five games (the first two 6-0) but three defeats in its first four games in November set it back, beginning a run of nine points from 11 games, injuries compounding a general sense of weariness. United, having drawn seven of its first 14 games, and six of its first seven away, remained unbeaten until February and went on to win the league by nine clear points, despite ending up with just 80 points.

Those were different times. United reached the Champions League final that season, the seventh English finalist in seven years; Chelsea would make it eight a year later. England seemed the dominant force in European football then, albeit that Barcelona was clearly light years ahead of any individual club in the Premier League.

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Now, the sight of the top clubs stuttering has rather graver implications; what was seen then as a blip leading to a less predictable title race looks now like the beginning of the Premier League’s fall from pre-eminence. As Serie A threatens to go above the Premier League in the UEFA coefficient table, and with that take its fourth qualification berth for the Champions League, inconsistency at the top is widely seen as an indicator of a lack of quality.

It’s not, though, quite as simple as that. The struggles of English clubs in Europe are an ongoing trend that cannot be written off as a blip. Louis van Gaal talks of the “rat race” of English football, the constant attrition, the lack of easy games, meaning Premier League sides arrive for European ties less well-prepared, both physically and tactically, than teams from other nations. Given his vast European experience, it’s fair to assume that there’s something in that. The obvious question, though, is how different is that to the situation between 2005 and 2012 when English sides kept reaching the final?

There are perhaps three answers. Firstly, that for a number of reasons the very top end of the Spanish and German leagues have got better. But it’s the other two explanations that are significant in assessing where the Premier League is at now.

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This is hard to judge, particularly given the weird English disdain for the Europa League, but it seems probable that the middle ranks have improved: there are odd exceptions (West Ham signing Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez, for instance), but generally speaking a decade ago the Premier League’s middle classes were not signing players of the quality of Dmitri Payet, Yohan Cabaye and Andre Ayew.

The middle has moved up, and a decade ago the best non-Champions League qualifiers were not sides of the quality of Tottenham and Liverpool now.

But the simplest–and in some ways least satisfying–explanation is that the top sides all have their own individual issues. Chelsea’s slump–a combination of some or all of the following: players losing form simultaneously, players losing faith in an abrasive manager, staleness, a shortened preseason, key players being injured, the aging of a group of strong dressing-room personalities–is unprecedented in the modern age.

United is still dealing with the aftermath of the departure of a leader who dominated the club for 26 years. City, its evolution stymied by poor investment over a four-year period, has a weary air and is over-reliant on certain key figures. Arsenal is (again) bedeviled by injuries that have shown up a lack of investment in certain areas.

Perhaps similar problems existed in that eight-year run of Premier League success, but the might of the league and the weakness of others was such that they weren’t exposed.

But at the moment, the English elite is flawed and those flaws are readily apparent. The result is poor performances in Europe–and a potentially fascinating title race.

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